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Fashion, Celebrity Photographer Found Beauty in the Commonplace

By Adam Bernstein and T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Irving Penn, 92, a virtuosic photographer widely known for his spare, formalized images of fashion models and who brought the same striking technique to portraiture of celebrities, anonymous tradesmen and violent motorcycle gangs, died Oct. 7 at his home in New York City.

His younger brother, film director Arthur Penn, confirmed the death, saying he didn't know the cause.

The quality and breadth of Irving Penn's work led to exhibits of his craft in the world's leading museums, and like photographer Richard Avedon, he was credited with eliminating the barrier between commercial and fine art.

He was best known for his association with Vogue magazine, where he contributed 150 cover photos starting in the 1940s that emphasized the chic world of high fashion. Declaring that "photographing a cake can be art," his later work showed an astonishing ability to find the beauty in the commonplace -- even detritus.

"He made an ashtray full of cigarette butts, of trash sitting on the street . . . appear as elegant as a Parisian fashion model," said Alison Nordström, a curator at the George Eastman House photography museum.

She added that his photographs of the Hells Angels bike gang also made them seem "like Paris fashion models."

After abandoning an early career as a painter, Mr. Penn began at Vogue in 1943 as an art director and quickly switched to photography when he found it hard to persuade photographers to execute his unorthodox ideas of minimalist composition.

Although he retained much of the formal composition skills he learned in art school, he conveyed the elegance of high fashion by placing models in surreal and mischievous poses against bare backdrops and with rudimentary props. That came in striking contrast with the traditional use of elaborately draped settings to showcase both the model and the wardrobe.

Mr. Penn's best-known Vogue covers were studies in abstract geometrics. The April 1950 one showed the model Jean Patchett dressed in patterns of black and white, her head facing the camera but her eyes darting right to convey suspicion. Her black hat brim is horizontal, and the white silk scarf perfectly vertical.

Besides Patchett, one of his frequent models was Lisa Fonssagrives, a former Swedish ballerina with haughty cheekbones. She became his wife. Their artistic collaboration led to a series of alluring and enigmatic fashion studies, notably "Woman With Roses," depicting Fonssagrives in a sleek, midnight black dress, with flowers pinned to her left sleeve.

The pictures attracted much attention and made Mr. Penn one of the busiest photographers of the era. He opened his studio in 1953 and alternated between fashion and travel assignments. As in his earliest images, his preferred way of shooting was against a plain backdrop. That's how he showed butchers, charwomen, a cucumber salesman, plumbers and other workaday figures from the streets of Paris, London and New York. They were depicted only with the tools of their trade and identification by name and nationality.

Mr. Penn once said that his intention was to "photograph people at rest, in a state of serenity" and that it sometimes took him hours of conversation and shooting to get the image that expressed a revelatory quality about the subject. One of his methods was to provoke discomfort by wedging his subjects in a narrow corner. One of his memorable "corner" pictures was of author Truman Capote in a contorted posture as he shoves his knees into the back of a chair. Capote remained one of his favorite subjects. He also forced actor Spencer Tracy, boxer Joe Louis and the Duchess of Windsor into a corner at various times.

Mr. Penn enjoyed great access but sometimes had to work for it. He described the painter Pablo Picasso not arriving for a scheduled appointment at a hotel on the Riviera in 1957 and orchestrating an elaborate effort to fool Mr. Penn into stomping away in anger. He did not, realizing Picasso "was a tester."

He captured Picasso wearing a hat and a bullfighter's cloak that almost obscured his face. It made Picasso appear like a Cyclops and was a playful take on the painter's own canvases.

One of Mr. Penn's most celebrated images was a 1951 picture of the French novelist Colette, who was 78 at the time and an invalid.

She would be dead in three years, and her sickly pallor was accented by the white powder on her face, her white hair that sat like a frizzy halo and the clothes that seemed to envelop her. Mr. Penn took many pictures of Colette, at one point preparing for a close-up of her face by placing the tripod between her legs.

"I saw that her toes were superbly lacquered," Mr. Penn told the writer and editor Jay Fielden. "I thought that was a chic way to go."

Irving Penn, the son of a watchmaker and a nurse, was born June 16, 1917, in Plainfield, N.J. He grew up in Philadelphia and attended an art school in the city, where he was mentored by Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper's Bazaar magazine.

At a young age, Mr. Penn's drawings were published in Harper's Bazaar and he served briefly as art director at Saks Fifth Avenue department store in New York before leaving for Mexico in 1942 for a year of painting.

When critical appraisal of his work was less than what he had hoped, he returned to New York with his canvases scraped clean and set about finding employment. He was hired at Vogue in 1943 to help design cover layouts, a job he got through his friend Alexander Liberman, who was art director.

Liberman commissioned Mr. Penn's first efforts in photography, a still life for the October 1943 issue to highlight autumn accessories. It showed a belt, a handbag, a pair of white gloves, a costume ring and other objects composed in a classic pyramid shape.

After serving as a photographer for the American Field Service during World War II, Mr. Penn rejoined Vogue. One of his more glamorous assignments, "Twelve of the Most Photographed Models of the Period" (1947), was a group portrait that included his future wife, Fonssagrives. They married in 1950.

Fonssagrives died in 1992. Besides Mr. Penn's brother, Arthur, who directed such films as "The Miracle Worker" and "Bonnie and Clyde," survivors include a son from his marriage, a stepdaughter and nine grandchildren.

Mr. Penn achieved greater public recognition beyond the pages of Vogue for his acclaimed first book, "Moments Preserved" (1960), which contained much of his early portfolio, and for exhibits about this time at prestigious private galleries and museums across the country. His later books included "Worlds in a Small Room" (1974) and "Passage" (1991).

The rise of the 1960s counterculture led Mr. Penn's style of fashion photography to drift out of favor, but he refreshed his reputation with a series of revealing ethnographic studies of tribesmen around the world. One of his most dramatic was of the Asaro Mud Men of New Guinea. As with other indigenous people he photographed, he brought them into his studio and placed them against a black canvas to illuminate what he considered their true natures.

Starting in the mid-1970s, he enjoyed a great critical resurgence with several exhibits in New York that displayed his pictures of cigarette butts, decaying fruit, clothespins and discarded clothing. Reviewers were harshly divided about the symbolic importance of the project, but Mr. Penn became an avid subject of conversation in the art world.

The images of refuse were often in the spirit of Mr. Penn's photographs dating from the late 1940s of the torsos of fleshy models -- they were meant to provoke. Art historian Rosalind Krauss once wrote that Mr. Penn's female nudes have "for him the quality of a covert operation, a kind of privately launched and personally experienced kamikaze attack on his own public identity as a photographer of fashion."

Mr. Penn's craftsmanship and attention to detail were underscored by his use of platinum salts -- a painstaking and expensive process that gave a luminous, often sensual finish to his art.

"A beautiful print," Mr. Penn said, "is a thing in itself, not just a halfway house on the way to the page."

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