Prisoners of Beauty: Irving Penn’s Portraiture

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For a long time, I struggled with Irving Penn’s portraiture. They seemed to me as remote from my world as portraits by painters with names like Bronzino, Mantegna, or Bellini— or Velazquez, Rembrandt, Goya. The subjects of these portraits belonged to a different time, and their codes, their styles, the very texture of their lives had all become obscure, the subjects of antiquarian or historical research, no longer immediate and legible. In some very real ways, the world of Irving Penn’s subjects—and the world of Penn himself—has also passed into history. Our primary access to Penn’s work, now, is aesthetic.

Whenever I sat down to think about Penn’s portraits, I kept going back to their formal qualities, constructing analogies between Penn and his antecedents, comparing him, over and over, to Goya or Velazquez (two of his favorite painters), to Renaissance or Gilded Age portraiture. With these portraits, one could play genealogy endlessly. Penn was a thoughtful and reflexive artist. He knew his history well. Looking at these images, I played that game a bit, invoking this painting or that painting. But mostly, I just kept coming back to their beauty.

I was a prisoner of that beauty.

And beauty can be hermetic, sealing the viewer out.

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There is, perhaps, freedom in ignorance. Whether due to deficiencies in my background or education, I knew only a handful of the faces in Penn’s portraits. In most cases, I would not have known the subject’s identity without help, and that sense my relationship to these Penn portraits resembled my relationship to those earlier portraits: Who were these people? That question carries but fleeting interest—it flickers in my consciousness and then flames out. What really interests me is the work itself: the composition, the lights and darks, the visual rhythms, those things that one might call “the fine points of craft.” I drift towards the how and the why of the work: What makes the work great and lasting, as opposed to simply “nice” or “good” or “interesting”? These are a practitioner’s questions. I want to know how a work transcends these categories. They are also the classic questions of connoisseurship. These may be the wrong questions to ask—impolitic, subjective, perhaps even frivolous—for they ignore both the contents of the work and the conditions of its making.

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One particular group of Penn’s portraits confounded me: the ethnographic portraits. They are undeniably beautiful. They also make me very uncomfortable, especially the ones from the late 1960s and early 70s. I do not know what to do with these images.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s centennial retrospective of Penn’s work—titled, simply, Centennial—dedicated a significant amount of gallery space to Penn’s ethnographic portraits. Penn made the earliest of these in Cuzco, Peru, in 1948. The last ones were made in 1971. Some of these photographs were published in 1975 under the title Worlds in a Small Room. The “small room” was a reference to Penn’s traveling studio. Penn was never comfortable with street photography. In Cuzco, Penn rented a local photography studio. Through the mid-1960s, he rented various spaces (a barn, a storage space) and converted them into studios. In 1967, however, Penn switched to using a portable tent studio, and that same tent studio would accompany him from Dahomey to Nepal, Cameroon, New Guinea, and Morocco.

irving penn tent studio nepal

Per Boije (Swedish, 20th cen.), for Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009), Tent in Nepal (A), 1967. Gelatin silver print, 35.8 x 34.9 cm. Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Irving Penn, 1996.274

These photographs were first published in Vogue and then in Worlds. In his catalogue essay on Penn’s ethnographic portraits, the anthropologist and historian Harald Prins notes that “[Penn] was puzzled that ‘the book was either clobbered or generally ignored,’ leaving him wondering ‘why it is not acceptable to people in book form, since it had such enormous reader interest when it came out each time in a number of Vogue Christmas issues.’” Prins saw the book’s failure to reach large audiences or garner positive interest as a reflection of changes in the American zeitgeist: “Worlds in a Small Room reflected the 1960s preoccupation with romantic exoticism and primitivism, but by the time of its publication the countercultural moment in the United States had passed.”

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Hilton Als described Penn’s portraiture as driven by the tension between the sitter’s physical and psychological qualities, and the formal, aesthetic possibilities offered by the photographic medium. As Als noted, “[Penn] was interested in his sitter’s interiority, their natural or manufactured authority, and the graphic line of their shape as they submitted to what I’d call cinematography.” But what happens to this tension when Penn approached his ethnographic subjects? Als, too, saw something shift in Penn’s ethnographic portraits, something that set them apart from his portraits of composers, architects, writers, and other “named” subjects.

dahomey girls penn

Irving Penn, Three Dahomey Girls, One Reclining, 1967, printed 1968, platinum-palladium print.

At the Met, Als re-encounters the images he first encountered as a teenager, on the pages of Penn’s photo book, Worlds in a Small Room:

[In the exhibition,] one comes across the group of beautiful girls from Dahomey I first saw in Worlds in a Small Room, now freed from a book’s binding, elevated to the seriousness of a museum wall. Placed there it’s clearer that the young women were considered beautiful in the first place, perhaps, because they are Vogue worthy, but black at a time when models of color were not featured in the magazine. Their blackness—as seen by Penn—was allowed because they were “by” Penn, sealed off from context and history—but not the silence that permeates cinematography.

In his discussion of Penn’s “cinematography”–what a more prosaic writer might call “aestheticization”–Als gets at some of my discomfort with these images. The photographer is an auteur, directing the production of a world. It is very different from the kind of relationship between photographer and sitter that Teju Cole described in an essay on West African portrait photographers. Cole views this relationship as fundamentally collaborative. Describing one of Seydou Keïta’s group portraits, circa 1956, Cole wrote:

And way off to the right, touching the hood of the car, is a man’s hand. He has been sidelined, just as the man in [Sidibé’s photograph] Je veux être seule was. But a closer look reveals another man in the picture. He can be seen in the front wheel well of the car, in the gleam of its reflective curve. He is the photographer, Seydou Keïta himself, in his limited role, collaborating with the true authors of the image: the women. (“Portrait of a Lady,” Known and True Things, 133).

Unlike Keïta’s group portrait, which can be read as authored by both the sitters and the photographer, I can’t think of any approaches to Penn’s photograph of the Dahomey girls that might lead to a reading where the photographer relinquishes authorship.

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I suspect the other part of my discomfort lies in the fact that if I wanted to be in a Penn portrait, or in the pages of a 1960s Vogue, the ethnographic route would have been the only route open to me. People who look like me simply did not go there, except under certain conditions. And one of those routes was through the fetishization of our otherness.

Though Penn may have been interested in his sitters’ interiority, with the ethnographic portraits, form was the end. Form is what we get, groups of men or women arranged like exquisite statues, their bodies transmuted into line and shadow.

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Penn approached all of his portraits with the same formal approach—with one important difference. The ethnographic portraits were, in the end, about documenting types. If his portraits of Colette, Hitchcock, Stravinsky, etc., were about revealing something of the subject, his ethnographic portraits—and to a certain extent, the Small Trades portrait series as well—presented individual instances of general types. We see masks, rather than individuals. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes argued that “photography cannot signify (aim at a generality) except by assuming a mask. It is this word which Calvino correctly uses to designate what makes a face into the product of a society and of its history.” In some of Penn’s ethnographic portraits, the sitters are literally masked. In others, the sitters are dressed to sublimate their individuality. Maid’s uniform or court dress, feathers or body paint—they all mask the individual. The person disappears.

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I was not the only one who had trouble with the later ethnographic portraits, as Penn’s rueful comments on their reception revealed. They were either “clobbered” or “ignored.” What had worked in the Fifties stopped working in the Seventies. Prins interpreted the critical failure of Worlds in a Small Room as part of a general shift in history.

The moment had passed.

And now, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, that sense of a gone world continues to trouble. These images bring me too close to a world already past—or one that I had hoped was already past. Unlike Tiepolo’s Orientalist fantasias, unlike the Moors that appear in the backgrounds and margins of Old Master paintings (think of Rubens or Veronese), Penn’s portraits come to us from a world not quite distant enough to be aestheticized. (And here I think of a line from Marie Howe: “Does everything from a distance look pretty?”) Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they come to us from a moment that we hope belongs to the past. Though recent events lead us to suspect that perhaps that moment has not yet passed.

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Penn’s portraits belong to the world of formal portraiture. As a genre, formal portraiture is far from the types of portraiture that dominate our contemporary image-world—it is not at all like the endless stream of selfies and street-style images that flash across our screens, or even like the kind of painterly portraiture practiced by contemporary artists (e.g., Elizabeth Peyton, Julie Heffernan, Lucien Freud, John Currin, Chuck Close). It exists in a different emotional register. We are more familiar, now, with a mode of portraiture that relishes a certain kind of theater of the self. Penn’s portraits are not meant to be expressive of either the photographer or the sitter. One might call Penn “classicizing,” for the way that his portraits edge away from emotional expressiveness towards becoming form, moving the subject more and more towards the ideal.

Once completed, a Penn photograph stands alone. You are not invited inside the process. The work just is.

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The broad sweep of Penn’s career reveals that he was very much of his time, a true modernist in terms of his commitment to form and to the formal. Like the high modernist architects — Richard Neutra, Louis Kahn, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier— who were his contemporaries, Penn presents his work as complete and autonomous. The finished object does not bring us inside the process of its making, nor does it offer glimpses into the maker’s interiority. The work projects authority and confidence, presents itself as essential, ideal, the only possible instantiation of itself, complete in its own being.

For those of us raised on postmodernism—and inculcated with a certain fetishization of process—this work can seem curiously bloodless. placid. Easy, even, existing in a world steady and stable, with no questions left to ask or answer.

The curators of this retrospective tried to open up Penn’s images by accompanying them with words, lots of words—wall texts, labels, an expansive and lavish catalogue. The Centennial catalogue explains Penn’s process, his psychology, the historical circumstances surrounding his life and his work, in an attempt to create ways into the work.

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But perhaps what Penn sought was something very different. Rather than inviting audiences into his psychology, Penn offered his audiences a powerful, flexible formal language for photographic portraiture, one that they could borrow and adapt, if they chose. He created a look, at once instantly recognizable and yet disarmingly simple in its formal elements, that has in turn shaped our own way of looking.

max ernst dorothea tanning pennMax Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, New York, March 20, 1947, printed 1983.

Judging by the actions of Centennial visitors, Penn’s language continues to exert a powerful pull. In one gallery, the Met curators draped a grey curtain backdrop (similar to the one that Penn used in his own studio) across the room, so visitors could take photographs in Penn’s style. During my visit, I watched group after group of delighted visitors pose in front of this backdrop. Here, we also witness the power and flexibility of the high modernist aesthetic. While the original objects were meticulously crafted — many of the prints in the Met’s show were large-scale platinum prints, painstakingly printed by Penn himself — in the end, it is the aesthetic that matters, the look of it all. Just as Ikea translated the aesthetics of high modernism into truly affordable ‘modern’ furniture, the Penn style, or look, has been transmuted into hundreds of Penn-style photographs.

kristy hume penn

Kristy Hume, Vogue, April 1995.

Albert Giacometti penn

Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1950.

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the history of Western portraiture knows that Penn did not invent this look out of whole cloth. And that is also part of the strength of the Penn style, this mixture of the new and the modern with those elements that seem at once classical and historical — of our time and out of time.

Perhaps this formal perfection is one of the reasons I find myself bereft of words before Penn’s photographs—for what is there to say about a perfect pop song? What is there to say about the Eames chair and its descendants? In all of these cases—the Penn portrait, the perfect pop song, the Eames chair—the finished object both embodies and defines a category. It is the form. And what can I say, by way of ekphrasis, that might illuminate an archetype? Can I offer anything beyond tautologies?

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