Monday, February 16, 2009

Still Life

For Christmas this year, I had asked for a book of images from Irving Penn. I'll be honest that when I added this item to the list, I was thinking of Penn's stunning fashion and portrait work. However, my lovely sister-in-law Melissa surprised me with Still Life, a collection of the photographer's images with which I had less familiarity.

The book is a moderately-sized 11x11" hardcover, and contains 45 color, 50 tritone, and 3 duotone illustrations. The most striking thing about thing about the volume is the excellent quality of the reproductions. The dust jacket comments that Penn oversaw every aspect of the production of this book, and that comes through in the superb rendition of the vibrant colors and subtle tones. The introductory essay by the late John Szarkowski is fairly dense: lots of complex sentence structures and references to slightly less-well-known denizens of the MOMA. It is definitely not light reading.

Lion Skull (Panthera Leo)
Irving Penn, 1986

As a body of work, the most striking thing to me is the moodiness and poetic quality the artist imparts upon these "inanimate" objects. Whether by austerity of composition, a slightly dark color tone, or even a little insect crawling across the cheese rind, these images express a profound sense of the ephermality of the subject matter. Even the flower images, which rank among the most beautiful I've seen, evoke a greater sense of the fleeting nature of these plants' beauty than the immortality conferred by the medium.

Cottage Tulip, Sorbet
Editorial Photograph for Vogue
Irving Penn, 1967

Its singularly fascinating to peruse these images and to attempt to distill the source of this "personality" in each, when on the surface many exhibit no obvious style cues but the almost clinical precision of the artist's technique. Penn's ability to construct an emotion from a seemingly careless arrrangement of objects is a unique kind of alchemy.

In closing, many photographers may be tempted to pass up this volume in search of Penn's remarkable fashion and portrait work. However, this book is a catalog of the beautiful possibilities present even when supermodels and celebrities aren't. Not only can cigarette butts found on a NYC street be beautiful: they can have true character.

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