Presentation IRVING PENN

For my presentation, I selected a range of photographs representative for an incredibly versatile, pioneering, and ever-evolving photographer Irving Penn. Upon discovering his art, immediately drawn to his vision and the emotion emanating from his images, I connected with it at an instance. What attracts and fascinates me, is the melange of a classical approach and his ventures into surrealism, exceeding creative boundaries. I believe that artists should continuously expand their knowledge of every aspect of the practice. Considering that fashion photography is not my expertise, I concluded it would be an excellent opportunity to investigate and learn about it.

Irving Penn was one of the twentieth Century’s great photographers, known for his iconic fashion, portrait, and still life photography. Penn’s aesthetic and technical skill earned him recognition in both the artistic and commercial worlds. He was a master of both black-and-white and colour photography, and his revival of platinum printing in the 1960s and 1970s was a catalyst for significant change in the art world. At a time when photography was primarily understood as a means of communication, not as artistic objects, he approached it with an artist’s eye and expanded the creative potential of the medium. He was among the first photographers to pose subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop, and he effectively used its simplicity. A visionary created works such as Earthly Bodies, which consisted of a series of posed nudes, taken in 1949 and 1950, the photographs were not exhibited until 1980, being considered too outrageous.

In 1999, he created a series of images of the dancer Alexandra Beller. It was Irving Penn’s final major artistically cohesive project.

Alexandra Beller ‘Dancer’ New York, 1999

Liz Wells in Image and Identity states ”Representation simultaneously depicts and symbolises”, and what is more portraying and characteristic than an elegant, definite human form.
I suppose that Penn is acutely aware of that and pays the utmost attention to signify it in an aesthetic manner, a manner that is purely exquisite and moving. He says ”A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.” I adore this image because it has the sensitivity of Penn’s nude photographs from the ’50s. He parallels the past and the present, simultaneously identifying the photographic potential of the human figure. The dancer speaks of the encounter with Penn ”(…) It remains the quietest, and one of the richest, collaborations, I’ve experienced.”


White and Black (for Issey Miyake) New York, 1990

I chose this photograph as it connects many aspects dear to me within photography. It is so exquisite, bizarre, and free, engaging with the human form Penn shapes it into something else, something almost otherworldly, and mesmerizing. I am an enthusiast of manipulating reality through photographic means, aiming to perplex and astound the viewer, provoke to think. This image connects with that desire in the subtle, however remarkable way. It stands somewhere between confusion and elegance, a marriage made in heaven.

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Man Lighting Girl’s Cigarette (Jean Patchett) New York, 1949

The best for last, this image is timeless in its grace and sophistication. It is the one that enticed me foremost, and from this point, I fell into a sublime rabbit hole of Irvin Penn’s art. It made me wonder why we take such pleasure in looking at the images of others. Studying Bates D. Photography, I discovered it all comes down to scopophilia, ‘(…) the viewing spectator takes pleasure from the act of recognizing and identifying, a process that engages the scopic drive’, in other words it’s an aesthetic pleasure drawn from looking at an object or a person. Bates evokes Sigmund Freud, who explains the origin ‘(..) the pleasure in looking in the early stages of life is primarily an ”auto -erotic” satisfaction, a kind of self-pleasure, where an infant takes its own body as an object of the look. Voyeurisms develops out of this, leaving primary narcissism behind, for the pleasure of ”an object other than itself”. He summarises aptly ”when we look at the portrait, what we see is what we can recognize in ourselves in another, or another in ourselves. (…) Looking at the images of others engages our own sense of self, whether consciously or unconsciously”. I consider the research on this project a very educating experience, it informed me of ways we perceive images and helped me understand why we see them the way we do. I hope you enjoyed my presentation and if you did not know Irving Penn before you do a little bit now, and are intrigued to dig a little deeper. As the man in question brilliantly put ”the world changes character when you are with a camera”. Thank you.

Published by Elzbieta Skorska

My name is Elzbieta Skorska. I am a second-year photography student degree at MMU.

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