Sunday, 11 October 2009

Irving Penn

With the death of Irving Penn, at the age of 92, the era of the Titans of fashion photography comes to a final close, and with it high fashion's greatest period.

Fashion photography grew only slowly in the first half of the 20th century, forced to share the role of documenting clothes on the pages of fashion magazines with fashion artists. But as techniques and especially reproduction quality improved, it gradually took the lead.The watershed was World War II, which empowered men for new opportunities in civvy street by training them in new skills skills such as communications and photography. Penn himself served in the US Marines before embarking on his photographic career. He quickly made his mark. And it developed into a monumentally powerful one, based on the simplicity of the perfectly placed figure treated as a sculpted image of high fashion. The hauteur of the final product was anything but the new movement towards the 'girl next door' which was to dominate the sixties (see a gallery of his work here).

Working mainly in black and white, Penn's great days of fashion depiction - his work was never as slight as mere representation of a designer's idea – were in fact the great days of high fashion at its very highest. The New Look, introduced in 1947 by Christian Dior, led the way for clothes of a perfection and grandeur in the hands of Balmain, Balenciaga, Jaques Fath and many other French couturiers which had not been seen not seen before and will never be seen again. These were the days of rigorous tailoring and the grandest of ballgowns – manna from heaven to a photographer with an eye like Penn's.

These were serious - even at times pompous - fashion statements, and they needed serious photography. No one gave it to them more expertly than Irving Penn - although his running partner, Richard Avedon, kept pace with him. Each reflected the ethos of the magazine for which they worked. A Penn fashion shot had all the grandeur and natural poise that was Vogue; Avedon's fashion work for Harper's Bazaar was lighter, younger and more immediate. If Penn was the fashion world's Michelangelo, Avedon was its Goya. Both produced images that will encapsulate mid-20th century style for as long as people continue to have any interest in the cultural history of fashion's past.

Great fashion photographers are very much more than mere chroniclers of fashion at any given moment. They are a vital part of the creative movement that starts in the designer's head and ends with the picture on a magazine page. And this is the great difference between an artist's representation of a garment and a photographer's. Ever since fashion photography came of age in the late forties, it has been an active rather than a passive element in fashion. The great designers create their looks with the camera in mind - and couture really has no other destination than the pages of a glossy magazine because most of it is not only superb, it is also unwearable outside a photographer's studio. Nowadays, even more accessible fashion reaches its apotheosis on the page - and designers work with the photographic image very much in mind. How much longer it will continue is debatable as the end of printed media is prophesied with more insistence almost on a daily basis, but at least we'll always have the genius of Penn to remind us of past glories.