Friday, 10 February 2012


Irving Penn

From the Indroduction from Irving Penn by John Szarkowski 

In 1950 Penn photographed the Paris collections and produced a series of photographs that remain almost equally memorable, and that revised the terms on which future fashion photographs would, for awhile, be considered. The best of the earlier work - by de Meyer,Steichen, Beaton, Hoynigen Huene, and others - now seems close to theater, with the dress and its model playing a role. But Penn's 1950 pictures provide no references to plot or circumstance, no suggestions of old chateaux, or perfect picnics, or delicious flirtations in Edwardian drawing rooms, or footlights, or avantFreudian dream worlds. They are not stories, but simply pictures. Within the boundaries of a classically simple photographic vocabulary, they effect a translation, into pictorial terms, of the idea and the spirit of another artist's work - the couturier's work.

Penn claims, with a modest and disarming smile, that the simplicity of his approach to fashion was inspired by ignorance. He did not know which sideboard or candelabra or period wallpaper to use with which dress, and therefore discovered by necessity the beauties of the seamless paper background. Without questioning Penn's candor, it can be pointed out that the traditional solution to this problem, if it was a problem, was to greet anachorism as a creative ally, and to photograph the ball gowned models with a horse in what appears to be an immaculate abattoir, as Steichen had; or to seat the subject in a surrealistic wheelbarrow, as Man Ray had. Beaton wrote later that the fashion photographers of the thirties had indulged themselves in a "recklessness of style.... Badly carved cupids from junk shops on Third Avenue would be wrapped in Argentine cloth or cellophane. Driftwood was supposed to bring an air of neo romanticism to a matter of fact subject. Christmas paper chains were garlanded around the model's shoulders, and wooden doves, enormous paper flowers from Mexico, Chinese lanterns, doilies or cutlet frills, fly whisks, sporrans, egg beaters, or stars of all shapes found their way into our hysterical and highly ridiculous pictures."

The economy and concentration of Penn's fashion pictures echoed his work in portraiture. In contrast to the prevalent magazine style of the years around 1950, his portraits are free of reference to the sitter's work or habitual environment. Writers are not photographed at their work tables, or even walking on the beach, thinking, but in a photographer's studio, in an improvised space made to appear as anonymous, as value free, as a photographer's studio. In many of Penn's early portraits the presence of the studio is insistent; we are allowed to see the electrical cables, or the edges of the backdrop, and feel the impersonal, conventional north light (real or contrived) falling on these subjects as it had on a thousand others before them. There is a suggestion of shabbiness about this studio. The floor bears the scars of earlier sittings, and the somber gray carpet, artfully spread over coffee tables and soft drink cases, is raveled at the edges. The studio presents itself as the functional workroom of an honest craftsman who is clearly unaware of the requirements of high elegance. After all those badly carved cupids and all that driftwood this would have been a perfect strategy, even for a photographer of modest talent who, after the novelty of simplicity had worn thin, could have adopted or adapted a new idea, and then another, etc.

Penn has never changed his first idea of portraiture; he has merely simplified what at first seemed almost irreducibly simple, so that by the late fifties even the anonymous studio disappeared, and there remained no environment at all, only a wordless conversation between the photographer and the sitter. If both principals are alert, and willing to accept the risk of humiliating failure, and if they are lucky, the collaboration may produce a picture that seems to touch the subject's soul. Such high success may be hoped for, but the odds of achieving it are statistically not good. Not even Holbein or Velazquez always achieved it. It is, however, not the product of arbitrary chance. Among photographers, Nadar had no apparent skills or esoteric knowledge that were unavailable to the other distinguished French portrait photographers of his day, but he succeeded more often in giving us a person who would, if not mute, tell us something marvelous. Or to start with the sitter, one might consider why there are so many moving portraits of Abraham Lincoln and so few, or none, of his contemporary Napoleon III, who apparently spent much of his career as Emperor being photographed. Perhaps it is because Lincoln had so deep a curiosity about other men that he did more than half the work, and brought even ordinary photographers to a state of alert participation and confidence that made them, for a time, equal collaborators.

Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), New York, 1950
Woman with Rose on Her Arm, 1950
Lisa Fonssagrives, 1951
Sunny Hamett, 1951

Penn is one of the greatest fashion photographers in history, his work was edgy and so interesting to look at. I have picked out a few images from the 1950s, that I have found the most interesting. How can I relate this to my project? I need to be careful as I do want all my images to work together, so my lighting can not be completely different per image. I think here I can consider lighting it quite contrasty and light, with some shadows around the face. I really like the curl of the eyebrow, and the red of the lips. The fashion is really extravagant, which I would love to bring in, if I do use clothes. I like the idea of relating to Penn by doing a full side portrait for this series, however I will have to see how it all works when I am shooting it. I do not think the I can take much from the hair with these images, however hopefully I can find some more inspiration for that when looking at the actresses. 

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is one of the most iconic actresses in the 1950s. I have a few photos of her already in my visual section of my sketch book where I have written about how I really like her hair. Here the make up is very 50s/60s, with the larger brow, red lipstick and red on the cheeks. I do prefer her hair slightly longer with the loose curls and flicks in it. 

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe is still iconic to this day, her sex appeal forever living on. I do really love her hair style, it is very glamourous. With the red lips and minimal eye make up, she is a natural beauty. I could try and translate this in my images if I try and cast a girl with the same kind of facial features as her, however I do not want to completely recreate her but just with a knitted wig. I do need to remember to keep it contemporary. Perhaps I can consider the type of expression my model has to channel a Monroe feeling. 

Grace Kelly

I think Grace Kelly is incredibly beautiful, she has amazing eyes and great facial features. I think this is the type of model I would like to ideally cast. Her make up is very simple and clean, the first image looks more 1960s with the lashes. With the others I do like how the hair is flat on the top and curls towards the back. The texture is really nice and the light picks it up well. 

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