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Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs 1938-2000
By Irving Penn

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 Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs 1938-2000

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Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs 1938-2000
By Irving Penn
ISBN: 0821227025
Genre: Arts

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Chapter Excerpt from: Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs 1938-2000 , by Irving Penn

Penn Still Lifes

Photography's first still life was a picture of a table set for a simple meal, made by Nicéphor Niépce in about 1827—years before the world even knew that there was such a thing as photography. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, Niépce's collaborator, made a still life by 1837. The other two of photography's principal inventors—William Henry Fox Talbot and Hippolyte Bayard-were a little tardier, but both had completed their entries before 1840.

These first attempts all seem to me remarkably good, and one might think that by now the problem might have been finally solved, or at least exhausted, but it is on the contrary full of life, as demonstrated by the work of Zeke Berman, Joan Fontcumberta, Lee Friedlander, Jan Groover, and Abelard Morrel, for examples, as well as that of the old master who has gathered together here, from the work of a long half century, his own definition of his contribution to the ancient genre.

In spite of his famous modesty of manner, Penn is neither naïve nor artistically unlettered. He is no downy-cheeked neophyte with a book dummy under his arm, and he surely understands that a book of still lifes by him, after all these years, will be regarded as a most serious claim and that, as we look at these pictures, the great still life tradition cannot be far from our conscious thought. If he had done a book of war photographs, or of fashion photographs, we might have looked at the pictures as describing the history of events that were to a degree independent of their description, but the raw material of still life seems an issue that lies outside of history, except for art history. It is only the art of still life that seems to have a history (except perhaps to pomologists), and therefore a book of still lifes by a living artist will inevitably make us remember the work of Chardin and all his great company.

During the second half of the twentieth century (and in fact beginning a few years earlier) Irving Penn has been one of photography's conspicuous innovators and distinguished performers in at least two of the medium's oldest and most successful genres: still life and portraiture. The fact that we now are or soon will be in a new century (depending on whether or not we can count to ten) should not prevent him from continuing to surprise and delight us in both these areas of work, if he should choose to do so.

High success is in itself surprising, but it is very rare for a photographer to be preeminent in both portraiture and still life. Before Penn, only Edward Weston comes to mind. In painting also it is unusual for an artist to be equally at home in both genres, until modern times, when painters from Manet to Picasso turned the trick, perhaps by somehow turning their portrait sitters into the more lasting stuff of still life.

Portraiture and still life would seem to require very different talents and sensibilities: still life is the genre in which the artist has the highest degree of control over the subject, and portraiture the one in which the artist's control is most compromised by the will of the subject. The best portraitists may be those who are successful at establishing a psychic exchange—a current of mutual interest—between themselves and their sitters. This is why Étienne Carjat (1828-1906)—good as he was-was not often as good as Nadar (1820-1910) and why the many imitators of Diane Arbus (1923-1971) found to their surprise and dismay that while it was easy enough to mimic her simple formal strategies, they did not make pictures like hers.

A good portraitist would be unlikely to admit it, but on a very basic level one might say that a portrait is a battle between two wills for the control of the sitter's soul. The best portraits, then, would be not those where the artist wins too easy a battle (as with John Sargent) but the contests that end in hard-won ties; and the greatest of those would be between two champions, e.g., Velasquez vs. Innocent X, or the aging Rembrandt vs. himself.

Some might think that it would be disabling for a photographer to think of his (her) work in terms of such grand exemplars—that it might keep a photographer from ever pushing the button. There might be some truth to this, and not just for photographers. I have had many chances to ask photographers whether they had ever thought about stepping into the ring with Velasquez, or even with Nadar, and I have never done so, not chiefly because the question is vulgar (which is not always a bad thing) but for fear that it might be disabling. On the other hand, it might be that the best photographers do not think (in the common sense) while actually working. In this case high ambition during the cocktail hour, or other moments of retro- or introspection, might not hurt them.

In any case, even the bravest of artists might prefer not to spend their entire lives engaged in one heroic competition after another, like the photographer attempting serious portraits every day. Even Hemingway's old fisherman might have preferred on weekends to go fish in a small stream for a shy foot-long trout that would threaten nothing but his ego. Or, alternatively, the old man might tire of his weekday job if the size or quality of the big fish declined: one or two flashy jumps and then abject surrender. Or again, an artist might cultivate both portraiture and still life simply because a change is a rest. The two genres offer different kinds of contests: in the case of the portrait we are given as raw material not a lemon and a loaf of bread, but a human being, a thing wondrous beyond comprehension—an opinion shared by virtually all our deepest thinkers, excepting only H. L. Mencken and a few other skeptics ruined by journalism. For the portrait photographer the challenge might be to suggest how the particular unique wonder now playing the part of sitter differs, in some significant or at least amusing way, from the three billion other potential sitters who are in principle equally wonderful.

With still life the problem is stood on its head: we are given apples and pears and dead game, objects seldom addressed in ringing poetic apologues—except occasionally, as with the author of the Songs of Solomon, who wrote: Comfort me with apples/for I am sick of love. In general, the stuff of still life, although in principle unique, interests us chiefly as exemplars of a more or less undifferentiated class. The other difference between the two genres is that it is very difficult even to get the living sitter to occupy the frame exactly as one would wish, to say nothing of the gesture of the head, shoulders, eyes, facial muscles, and the rest of what makes up what is called the expression; whereas with the apples and pears we have an absolutely submissive subject: we can place them as we wish, and they will stay there, slumping only very slowly. It is in fact their submissiveness that makes them difficult. It is said that Cézanne (I think) would arrange the fruit with his hands behind his back, facing away from the table, in order to overcome the natural tendency of fruit, dead fish, etc., to arrange themselves in conventional compositions.

I had hoped in this essay to compare Penn's early still lifes for Vogue with those that the magazine had published in the preceding years, but I found no still lifes in the issues of the preceding years, unless I counted the dreary nuts-and-bolts, one-column product photos or the occasional how-to-do-it pictures, showing how one might arrange the napkins and flatware for the buffet, that accompanied articles with titles such as "Impromptu Entertaining." It would seem that the fashion-magazine still life might have been Penn's invention, perhaps in league with his collaborator and friend Alexander Liberman, art director of Condé Nast almost forever. A still life by Penn appeared as the cover of the magazine as early as October of 1943; but a few months later Penn volunteered for the American Field Service, and the still life idea seems to have been put aside until he returned after the war. In 1946 the idea was reintroduced in Vogue as a sort of side dish to portraiture. The two August issues of 1946 include color portraits by Penn of Orson Welles and Helen Hayes, each posed along with a still life—a potpourri of objects that were said to symbolize their inner selves. This was a conceit so transparently synthetic that it probably did not fool even the readership. In any event, the experiment was dropped after several tries. By 1947, however, Penn was producing a cornucopia of dazzling still lifes, seven of which are reproduced here. In the same enormous year he also produced some of his most memorable portraits.

Although one cannot compare Penn's magazine still lifes with those that had come before, one can say that their character was parallel to the character of his portraits and his fashion pictures, which is to say that they were very surprising, and produced a pleasurable frisson—an awareness that we were suddenly in unfamiliar territory. His fashion pictures claimed that the new gowns were so good that they did not need to play second fiddle to some fanciful fairy-tale narrative, and his portraits claimed that these people were so interesting that they did not need to be photographed with a castle, or a symphony orchestra, or a marvelous Neopolitan slum in the background. And the still lifes claimed that the quotidian raw materials of cooking and eating—heads of cheese, cleavers, sides of beef, sculpted butcher blocks, and also abandoned demitasse cups, cigarette butts on saucers, lipstick stains on a liquor glass, etc.—if properly seen, contained all the necessary plot elements and the essential hints from which any reasonable reader might construct a story proper to her own circumstance.

The established photographers who were regularly used by Vogue in 1946 comprised a distinguished group, which included Cecil Beaton, Horst, Erwin Blumenfeld, Frances McLaughlin, and John Rawlings, and it would surely be possible to identify an individual style for each of them. But with Penn's first mature work, when he was perhaps thirty, the work of all those others seemed in comparison complicated, even if in different ways. The magazine's fashion pictures had been full of elaborate gesture, suggesting overdressed ballerinas who were no longer quite as supple as they had once been, lit by enough klieg lights to film Gone With the Wind. In Penn's fashion pictures the vitality was not in the gesture of the model but in the line of the image. If the silhouette was active, the model could be freed from all that extraneous athleticism and be assigned what appeared to be an almost normal stance. And the light became as simple, natural and pure as that of a north-facing skylight. Nothing so apparently simple had been seen in the magazines. On some level it even fooled young provincial photographers such as the writer, who might have wondered (for a moment) whether the photographer might be one of the older fellows, someone whose first employer might have once met the aged Mathew Brady.

This new simplicity belonged to Penn on the level of bone-deep intuition, and during the early postwar years it was also perfect for the magazine. Both high art and high fashion then still came from Europe, where empty rooms and empty walls seemed badges of honor, representing a clean slate, a new beginning, as well as a confirmation of political integrity. After six years of war, luxurious surroundings smacked of collaboration or other forms of villainy.

Beyond the aspect of simplicity but related to it was the assumption of naïveté, or faux naïveté, that made Penn's pictures seem more straightforward, and therefore more honest, than those of photographers who worked in a more flowery style. But in fact it is not clear that some artistic styles— some forms of artifice—are more conducive to honesty than others. It does seem clear that honesty must mean something different to a magician than to an accountant. It is also clear that both the simplicity and the naïveté in Penn were very ingeniously crafted.

The idea that fashion photographs might be made under a skylight—under cool, understated, factual, pre-Edison, nineteenth-century, God-made light—was a brilliant conceit, which might have lasted two or three issues but for the fact that Penn's photographs were very beautiful and transcended tactics. On the basis of these pictures the conceit became a standard procedure of the industry, and hard-edged shadows were virtually expunged from the fashion magazines. The new technical vocabulary established by Penn was the first change of the sort brought to the fashion magazines for a quarter century, since the great Edward Steichen brought Edison's incandescent lights to Condé Nast's magazines. Steichen's contribution was thoroughly functional; photomechanical reproduction in the better magazines of the mid-twenties had become reasonably good, but not nearly as good as Steichen made it look by using cinematic lighting to divide his subject into a few clearly textured tones of gray. Between the mid-thirties and the late forties magazine reproduction had not improved substantially, so Penn had to manage his daylight—real or feigned—so that it would suggest the infinite subtlety of the north skylight while being restricted in fact to a very abbreviated gray scale. He managed this by the expressiveness of his drawing—the line of the edges that defined his shapes—and by a superb graphic sense that led him to arrange his short palette of grays in a pattern that would suggest a black as deep as an etching's, and a scale as seamless as that of a trombone.

In 1950, as a member of a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art, Penn expressed boldly and with obvious pleasure the confidence of a young professional enjoying the full command of his powers. He said, "The modern photographer... works for publication.... The end product of his efforts is the printed page, not the photographic print." Yet at the same time that he was expressing in public his entire satisfaction with the opportunities offered by the magazine, he was producing in private a series of highly experimental nudes for which he could see no public venue. In his early thirties Penn had already established a second, parallel, and private track for his work, in which he could pursue those problems that had no journalistic valence.

It was said earlier that any retrospective summing up of an artist's work in still life—in contrast to the other, more topical genres—is likely to be weighed in the balance with his greatest predecessors. There is probably no way to avoid this unfair contest, in which a living artist is compared with a whole squad or even a platoon of dead masters averaging hundreds of years of age. But if the issue cannot be avoided, it can be framed with more or less precision. In my view it would be more useful to compare Penn's still lifes not with the great French but with the great Spanish masters, especially Francisco de Zurbarán and his predecessors, and particularly Juan Sanchez Cotán, whose great mysterious still life Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber in the San Diego Museum of Art exhibits a sensibility that seems to me to have much in common with Penn's. There is in the work of both artists a deep regard for the authority of the objects themselves. One might risk this generalization: the French, in their devotion to pictorial clarity and logic, have generally required that the apple and the table on which it sits, and the air that surrounds them both, constitute an undivided visual field, into which the parts are subsumed; whereas in Spanish still life the apple tends to be an actor on the stage—distinct from and superior to it. There is a kind of corporeal weight, an earthbound specificity, a gravity, in the Spanish fruit or nut that prevents it from becoming wholly absorbed into the visual field.

There is in Penn, it seems to me, a similar gravity, a similar half-melancholy love for the weight and substance of every grape in the bunch. This quality seems to me especially evident in Penn's black-and-white work, and is perhaps nowhere more moving than in the superb New York Still Life (Elements of a Party), where the corporeal food and the evanescent light make a perfect marriage of flesh and spirit.

As a young man, but one with some training both in art and in life, Penn gave up the job of art director for Saks Fifth Avenue—a job that most commercial artists would in 1941 have clung to like a drowning man to a raft—in order to go to Mexico, to find out (among other things) how good a painter he was, or might become. At the end of the year he decided (correctly or otherwise) that he was not as good as he had hoped, and washed the paint out of his excellent linen canvases, preserving them for tablecloths. He might nevertheless have discovered something during that year that was compatible with his own sensibility and useful to his future work. I do not know whether he went to bullfights, but some young scholar might count the number of his fashion pictures in which the model presents either the challenging, seemingly easy frontal target or the profile so slender that it is almost invisible, disguised even further by extravagant cape work. One might think also of the staccato black shapes of black-clothed Mexicans against the incendiary brightness of stuccoed buildings in the tropical sun. Or (although I do not have a vocabulary for this possibility) he might have learned a new rhythm— a beat that was both celebratory and somber, which gave his pictures a quality of sobriety that (one would have thought) would be as out of place in a fashion magazine of the mid-twentieth century as a bishop at a gaming table. Perhaps this quality of incongruity was accepted by the people who defined magazine policy simply because it was novel, but it seems more likely that they were grateful, as we all are, when a colleague demonstrates that our collective work is more important than we had thought.

Before the early seventies Penn's still lifes were made principally for Vogue, and principally out of good things to eat and drink, or the accoutrements of the sweet life: paper-thin kid gloves, expensive gold lighters, shoes handsome enough to dance by themselves. In the early seventies he began to devote progressively more attention to the parallel track of his private work. Here he turned away from the stuff of the good life and began to photograph trash. In 1972 came the enormously surprising pictures of cigarette butts. The shock of these pictures derived from their terrific, chilly elegance. The detritus of the street had taken on an exotic nobility, like fragments of the heraldry of some lost culture, or the shards of sculpture on the floor of a classical temple. The effect came in part from the extraordinary physical beauty of these pictures as objects. The large platinum prints that are the vehicles for these pictures exploited to an unprecedented degree that medium's ability to make tonal distinctions of extreme subtlety, especially at the light end of the photographic scale, where the ethereal blends imperceptibly into the chimerical. The Cigarettes are bits of the most inconsequential junk, seen in a radiant, transforming light.

After the Cigarettes came the miscellaneous gutter trash, the old bones, the skulls of human beings and other mammals, the bones of old machines, and the steel blocks: in all of these cases the raw materials of the pictures are different kinds of stuff than what he would have used for pictures to be used in a fashion magazine. Nevertheless, the goal of the pictures—considered not as illustrations of something else but as independent constructions—seems not to have changed radically.

In its simplest terms, the goal seemed to have been the rediscovery of the possibility of order, under circumstances that are never quite propitious and out of materials that are less than promising. One's next meal, for example, is not intrinsically a subject of high philosophical nobility. The poets even to this day have done relatively little with it, which is some measure of the historic achievement of the painters.

For more than forty years Penn's pictures celebrated the pleasures of this life, even while always acknowledging the worm in the apple. There has been in Penn's work, from the beginning, a taste for the stringent, the attenuated, the ascetic, the austere; and this taste for austerity—for the mordant—was a perfect foil to the magazine's official hedonism. Some of his more recent still lifes seem in contrast to have less to do with pleasure than with something like cultural reportage. These pictures now tell us of the divertissements and hobbyhorses of the world, especially the world of fashion, in a manner so cool, so objective in its inflection, that it is not altogether clear whether he addresses us as a worker from that world or as disinterested scientist reporting on its exotic rituals or perhaps, on occasion, as a satirist, giving aesthetic shape to folly.

As a matter of convenience we can say that a man has worked in the same industry for half a century, but the world of haute couture to which Penn was introduced as a young man is long dead and scarcely remembered, except by the works of art that it produced. Penn's contribution to that body of art has been profoundly useful to subsequent artists, including some that are still young. Only the very reckless would bet against a long life for his new and future work, now that it expresses not only the familiar high talent, extraordinary skill, and professional savvy but the fierce directness that sometimes appears when the tamer ambitions of middle age are left behind.

John Szarkowski

Excerpted from Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs 1938-2000 , by Irving Penn . Copyright (c) 2001 by John Szarkowski. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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