When I was very young, just at the beginning of the career journey that brought me to the world of fashion, I had an Irving Penn experience, which, for the first time in a while, I thought of this last week when I heard of the photographer’s death at 92.
I use the word “experience” because I can’t remember if I ever formally met Penn. I was, rather, in his vicinity. I was in my twenties, in Paris, doing a story for American Vogue about a make-up artist. Penn, who was then in his seventies, was photographing the model Shalom Harlow for the magazine and the make-up artist was also working on the shoot. So I was in a corner, observing.
What I remember is quiet, and stillness. Phyllis Posnick, the fashion editor on the shoot, told me Penn liked Harlow because she had been a dancer and was, therefore, very good at “holding a pose” for many long minutes on end. Unlike Richard Avedon, another glossy magazine photographer whose work blurred the boundaries between fashion and art and who had a penchant for running and jumping models, Penn’s pictures were not action sequences, but still-lifes with women (or without women, or with African tribesmen, as the case might be). They were perfectly, pristinely, imagined and arranged – the representation of a mind’s eye. Occasionally, Penn might instruct Harlow to move, ever so slightly; to raise her arm or turn to the left. She would begin to shift in almost invisible increments, as gradual as a stop-motion film. And then she would freeze. Again. It went on for hours. And it went on like that often.
For as long as I was writing beauty stories for Vogue, I would hope that Penn would do the picture illustrating the pieces I was working on. That was partly because the picture would be unexpected (overripe bananas for a piece on ageing) and it would be beautiful, but mostly it was because I knew that, if Penn took the picture, chances were high that the story would go in the main part of the magazine and not the beauty section at the front – that it would become Important. This may seem childish and selfish in the extreme (it was), but it was also formative, because for a writer, especially a writer starting out in a world that many smart people thought supremely silly, Penn’s photographs were primers in how not to condescend.
For Penn’s pictures took an object, often a very banal object, such as foundation, and, by seeing it as its elements (form, colour, light and shadow), elevated it to something entirely other. To Penn, a woman such as his wife, the model Lisa Fonssagrives, was a shape, and so was Pablo Picasso, and so were the Clinique products whose ad campaigns he created, and all of them deserved to be special.
“Photographing a cake can be art,” he said in 1953. More than half a century later, the lesson still holds. In everything, there is the possibility of nobility, if given the right regard.
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor
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