Irving Penn’s Vanity of Simple Delights

In 1941 the preeminent photographer Irving Penn traded the camera for the paintbrush. At the age of twenty-four, he was trying to figure out which medium best suited his youthful spirit. After assisting his former teacher Alexey Brodovitch—who’s regarded to be the most innovative magazine (Harper’s Bazaar) director ever, the first to find in the photograph an editorial perspective—Penn decided to take off to Mexico to paint. He returned to New York City a year later with the knowledge that he and the brush and the canvas weren’t a good fit. And so he retrieved his Rolleiflex and under the art director Alex Liberman, he began his legendary work for Vogue.

His fashion portraits grabbed my attention when I was twenty and found a book of his photos in a bookstore bin. Although the reproductions were I realize now quite lousy, the simplicity and stylization and structure in black and white swept me away. I would go on to discover the still lifes he took, and learn that they were considered no less significant. In fact his first Vogue cover assignment featured no model dressed in haute couture but featured instead a glove, a bag, and a belt. Sometimes he tapped into what became his ‘signature style,’ arranging the objects in an almost claustrophobic setting with a clarity derived from natural light—evidenced here by his Still Life (with Mouse).

Liberman had asked Penn to take “the most symbolic picture of a farm kitchen” for a ‘farm issue’ of House and Garden, another Condé Nast publication. And for the 1947 shoot the photographer created a tight stage on which he placed a table full of familiar still life objects at an acute angle to the lens. I can’t help thinking surely his one time passion for painting informed his tableau, his own take on the Dutch Baroque still lifes called Vanitas (see earlier post), that included of course the mouse.


Sources: Irving Penn, Passage: A Work Record, 1991; Lynn Hirschberg, The New York Times, December 22, 2009; Virginia Heckert and Anne Lacoste, Irving Penn: Small Trades, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009; Paul Martineau, Still Life in Photography, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.

(Image reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

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