Many glowing eulogies will be written about Irving Penn in the course of the next days and weeks, and all of them will be richly deserved. With Penn, who died on October seventh at the age of 92, we come to the end of the great age of glamour in magazines, and a remarkable period when brilliant photographers who happened to make their livings in fashion and advertising were finally recognized for the artistry of their eyes, whether they were making pictures of dresses or street debris, celebrities or nonentities.
Though I have made part of my living as a photography critic, and have always admired Penn as a protean artist of limitless scope, my feelings about him are based on what I knew of him as a person.
We first met sometime in the mid- to late seventies, when the New York Times magazine asked me to interview him around the time of his first one-man show at the Marlborough Gallery. Penn had cause to be wary of me; in a piece on fashion photographers for New York magazine, I had been gulled by a mischievous Richard Avedon into describing the hard-working Penn as “semi-retired.” (In fairness, the hyper-energetic Avedon probably thought of anyone less frenetic as semi-retired.)
But Penn was gracious, and it wasn’t until much later that he joked about his reaction on reading that description. Penn was about 20 years older than I, and very famous, so naturally I called him “Mr. Penn.” And he responded by calling me “Mr. Edwards.” And such was his natural formality that we didn’t shift to a first name basis until we’d known one another for several years. In a world where last names are discarded before the first handshake, Penn’s old school formality might have restrained our relationship, but instead I found it freeing. I was a mere journalist, he was one of America’s best known photographers, and yet mutual formality implied mutual respect. When we finally shifted to “Irving” and “Owen,” (his doing, of course) I realized that there was nothing unearned about our friendship.
Penn’s formality came naturally to him, as it does to others born well before World War II, at a time when men wore hats and ties and women wore gloves and dresses, and good manners were not optional. Penn was ten years younger than my father, but both men had an air of properness that I recognized the instant we met. (Penn and his director brother Arthur came from Plainfield, New Jersey, a town right next to Westfield, where I grew up; in both towns, young men were taught the cardinal virtues of decorum.) It was this formality that became the hallmark of his work, whatever he was photographing. The camera is an infamous stealer of souls, an intrusive device almost rude by definition. But Penn, in his portraits and fashion shots and even his immaculately conceived still lifes, managed to build in a certain discreet distance between the subject and himself, and that relieved the viewer of the uncomfortable feeling – so often found in photography – of being caught staring. Not the least of Penn’s accomplishments was the ability to be formal in his approach, and somewhat antiquated in his technique, without keeping us from getting to the heart of the matter.
The first photograph I ever bought was a Penn, from that original Marlborough show. It’s a platinum print, one of the Small Trades series that he worked on for several years in New York, Paris and London, and it shows a French cucumber vendor meticulously framed against one of Penn’s trademark mottled gray backgrounds. The man is shirtless and very thin, his arms resembling the elongated cucumbers in a wooden box he’s holding. On his chest is a tattoo of a woman’s face. He’s someone whom it might be easy to feel sorry for, but Penn gives him such dignity – it’s a “mister/monsieur” relationship – that pathos is stopped in its tracks. This is a man doing a job, nothing more or less. I have had that photograph on the living room wall of every apartment and house I’ve lived in for more than 30 years, and it has never made me uncomfortable, nor has it ever seemed exhausted of visual and poetic possibilities.
I have no idea about how Mr. Penn felt about religion, other than knowing that he was Jewish. But in all of his photographs, even his whimsical still life of frozen foods or “portraits” of street debris, there is a kind of existential reverence for the beauty of everything and anything. In this, he was as spiritual as any artist I can think of. On another living room wall, I have three of his monumental, exquisite platinum prints of cigarette butts. One would not think that the joy of discovery could be found in squashed Camels and Kents, but I never look at them without marveling at the beauty Penn saw and that we see only because of him. They are my Rothkos.
My favorite memory of Penn has nothing to do with photography. After we’d known each other for a couple of years, and I’d written a few critical columns about his shows (not always, in fact, uncritical), he invited me and my wife to come one Saturday to his house on Long Island for lunch with his wife and a few editors from Vogue. We left our weekend house on the North Fork and headed “up island” on my motorcycle. About halfway there, the sky turned black, and then opened in one of those torrential rains that make summers on the East Coast so dramatic. We were past the point of no return, and so pressed on, arriving soaked to the skin, looking no doubt like drowned rats. Clearly, we were in no shape to meet the folks from Vogue. Penn and Lisa Fonsagrives, his beautiful model-turned-sculptor wife, met us at the door, and before we could be mercilessly appraised by the visiting editors, whisked us up the stairs. We were given towels and fresh clothes (luckily my wife and Lisa, and I and Irving, were the right sizes) and became miraculously presentable. By the time we were introduced to the counts and countesses of Conde, we looked as if we’d arrived by limo.
In describing his early years with Vogue, Penn told me that when he was first sent to Paris for the fall collections, his mentor Alexander Liberman told him not to take any photographs. “I just want you to see how it’s all done,” the art director said. “Figure out which forks to use.”
At the risk of an awful old cliché, those were the days. We won’t see the likes of them, or Penn, again.