A woman reclines elegantly, the rhombuses of her dress and the edges of her angled hat jumping off the page in their unnatural blackness. Even her eyebrows and eyelashes follow suit, sharply curved in a deep black. Everything in the photograph “Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn)” at the Yale University Art Gallery is simply a pure white or an impenetrable black.
It is this kind of simple meticulousness that defined Irving Penn’s career. Penn, 92, died last Wednesday in Manhattan, leaving behind an archive of portraits and still lifes — represented by “Harlequin Dress” and other works owned by the gallery — that have established him as one of the most noteworthy modern American photographers.
Richard Benson, former dean of the School of Art and adjunct professor of photography, met Penn when he was a critic at the school in the early 1970s.
“He is recognized without question as the supreme studio photographer, and no one is in his league,” Benson said. “And he practiced for years and years and he took that medium beyond just advertising.”
Born in 1917, Penn began photographing in the 1940s while working for Vogue, first as an assistant art director and, after serving in World War II, as a staff photographer. He gained fame photographing models and fashion for the magazine, against simple stark backgrounds that emphasized the glamour of the garments in an unprecedented way.
Likewise, his portraits of celebrities and cultural icons — such as Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Marlene Dietrich — reinvented the genre by highlighting the innate grace and beauty of the subjects against bare backgrounds. Everything Penn photographed, from his commercial work to his personal projects, had a unique beauty that was both fragile and forceful.
“It’s not a comfortable elegance [that Penn depicts],” said Joshua Chuang, assistant curator of photographs at the YUAG. “It makes you stand up straighter and pay attention to it. It’s slightly unsettling.”
In the late 1940s, Penn photographed a series of nudes that he did not exhibit until forty years later. These photographs are notable not only because of their bizarrely graceful composition, but also because they exemplify his high quality printing. For example, “Nude 151” at the YUAG, shows the lush torso of a woman through both bleached whites and dense black tones, whose strange richness is a fundamental part of the glamour that Penn communicated in many of his photographs.
“Penn was interested in imperfection and asymmetry and how he could throw those elements into his definition of beauty as well,” Chuang said.
Unsatisfied by the tonal range the more common silver printing allowed, Penn turned to platinum-palladium printing, an extremely difficult and unconventional process that gave him a non-glossy surface for printing his deep tones. No two palladium prints are the same, and so Penn’s prints are not mere reproductions of images, but physical works of art.
“Penn saw the culmination as the physical photograph, the print,” Chuang said. “He enlarged his own photographic vocabulary more than any other fashion photographer of his ambition.”
Though Penn was most known for his work in fashion, his subjects ranged widely over the course of his career and he was able to bring out the beauty in every subject.
“He was a very wide ranging talent,” Benson said. “He did cigarette butts from the street, he did workers in Peru, and simple tradesmen in Europe and bike riders in California.”
The gallery owns one of his most famous photographs outside the fashion world: ‘Cuzco Children, Peru, December 1948.’ Penn photographed two young Peruvian children against the same kind of backdrop he would have used for a model in couture. And despite their bare feet and ragged clothes, these petite adults contain the same kind of beauty that is so striking in all of his work.
“I think that when you look at Penn’s pictures, they redefine your notion of beauty,” Chuang said. “You don’t know what beauty is until you see Penn define it for you.”
Visitors at the gallery can make an appointment with the Prints and Drawings Department to see Penn’s photographs.