The fashion world lost a legend today when the photographer Irving Penn died at the age of 92.
Penn’s perfectly restrained black and white images from the '40s and '50s displayed a minimalist elegance that became the defining view of the golden age of haute couture. His graphic depictions, of archly-cool models in the sharp silhouettes of the day – a feline eye swept with eyeliner gazing out from beneath a hat, a static pose in an angular sweeping skirt, a tightly-fitted jacket ending in a cocked ladylike wrist – became not just hallmarks of the era, but iconic images of women.
In 1950, Penn married his favourite subject, and the supermodel of the day, Lisa Fonssagrives, whose background as a ballet dancer informed her dramatic grace and poise. Known as ‘the highest paid, highest praised, high fashion model in the business,’ her documentation by the adoring Penn played no small part in her elevation.
Beginning in 1943, Penn’s 50-year tenure at Vogue, became the longest in the magazine’s history, and during that time he created countless images and some 150 covers.
But he didn’t just shoot for the magazine’s fashion pages. His minimalist portraits, regarded then as ‘anti-fashion’, captured the stars of the day, from Alfred Hitchcock to Pablo Picasso and Spencer Tracy, in a direct, undistracted manner that Vogue dubbed ‘point-blank’.
Penn loved the intimacy of studio sittings ‘the camera is just a tool, like a wrench, but the situation itself is magical. I stand in awe of it.’ His obsession with reducing the elements of portraiture even led to him altering this studio space – he pushed together two ‘flats’ (photographic boards) to create a confined corner in which his subjects were asked to stand. This angled space, Penn noted, ‘surprisingly seemed to comfort people, soothing them. The walls were a surface to lean on, or push against. For me, the picture possibilities were interesting, limiting the subjects.’
His portrait of a still school-boyish, but fiercely self-assured Yves Saint Laurent, was taken at the moment he took over as chief designer at the house of Dior, at the age of 21, perfectly encapsulating perhaps the seminal moment in 20th century fashion.
In the 1960s, Saint Laurent created a fashion revolution, and haute couture was superseded by ready-to-wear. Fashion photography reflected this new, more relaxed, approach to fashion through young cheeky upstart snappers like David Bailey, whose portraits had a deliberate informality and spontaneity. Penn continued to work, but more infrequently, for Vogue.
Fonssagrives remained his wife (and favourite model) until she passed away in 1992.
The photographer once remarked, 'When I am working with the haute couture I think again and again of the beauty of women and the magic of Paris.' Penn may be gone, but with simplicity and elegance, he has captured that magic for the enchantment of generations to come.