Irving Penn

He photographed the most important artists of the last half-century—and in the process joined their ranks.

Irving Penn photographed so many prominent cultural figures of the 20th century that, over the years, he came to be regarded as an equal among them. But his stature grew not just because of his venerated subjects—he advanced the genre of portraiture. His formal rigor, graphic daring, and studied simplicity brought the portrait to a new level of representation. The rich, mottled tones with which he crafted his portraits are less about creating mood than about rendering pure physicality. With bold, contrasting light, he cast his accomplished subjects in nothing less than monumental terms—as if each one is chiseled, for the ages, in stone.

The 90-year-old photographer has been actively securing his own legacy in recent years, methodically placing bodies of his work in several important museum collections. In 2002, he donated 85 one-of-a-kind platinum prints to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the museum subsequently exhibited the work in a large show, “Irving Penn: Platinum Prints,” in 2005. Earlier this month, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles announced their acquisition of 250 Penn prints from his blue-collar series of portraits called “The Small Trades.” The museum purchased 125 of the prints, and Penn donated the rest. The same arrangement was made with the Morgan Library and Museum in New York last year; Penn donated 35 portraits, and they purchased an additional 32 for their collection, currently on display in the museum’s inaugural exhibition of photographs.

It’s fitting that the Morgan, known as a preserve for the very best of the humanities, would choose Penn’s visual pantheon of arts and letters for its first photography show. Some of the greatest writers, artists, and musicians of the last half-century posed for Penn; among those in the Morgan show are W.H. Auden, Francis Bacon, Marcel Duchamp, Carson McCullers, Igor Stravinsky, and Tennessee Williams.

Penn is the natural heir to Cecil Beaton and Edward Steichen, both of whom photographed cultural figures central to the early half of the 20th century for Vanity Fair and other lavish publications of the day. Beaton and Steichen shared an element of theatricality in their portraiture. Each of them constructed for their subjects a public persona out of ambient lighting, elegant clothing, and props—chaise lounges, grand pianos, bouquets of flowers, swank cigarette holders. But while Penn followed in the footsteps of Beaton and Steichen, he established a style all his own. Penn, for the most part, banished the accoutrements. He relied on manner, attitude, and countenance to represent a subject’s legacy.

At the beginning of his career, Penn would not have gained access to such a significant group of artists and writers without his affiliation to Vogue. Alexander Liberman hired Penn to work for Vogue in 1943, initially as an art director. Within a year, however, Penn had published his first cover photograph for the magazine, and his career as a photographer was launched.

Penn made this portrait of Jean Cocteau during a 1948 trip to Paris for Vogue. Each thread of Cocteau’s tie, vest, and suit is etched in light and shadow; the patterns and the texture pop out in vivid, tactile detail. The drape of his coat over an extended arm adds drama and balance to the composition. Cocteau is dressed in the sartorial attire of a dandy, which, by all accounts, he was. There is an air of flamboyance about him, until you look at his face. His dead-serious expression registers the fierce intelligence of a keen observer, as if he is taking our measure while deigning to allow us to take his.

Penn believed that the portraitist must appear as a servant to the sitter, nurturing and encouraging the sitter’s self-revelation. At the same time, he once told a reporter that while many photographers consider the subject to be the client, “my client is the woman in Kansas who reads Vogue. I’m trying to intrigue, stimulate, feed her. My responsibility is to the reader. The severe portrait that is not the greatest joy in the world to the subject may be enormously interesting to the reader.”

One of his severest portraits was of French novelist Colette, whom he shot in her apartment in Paris in 1951. Her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, wrote in his 1956 memoir that Colette “had an astonishing and revelatory forehead. She knew it and never agreed to show it.” Goudeket was shocked when he saw Penn’s portrait of her in Vogue. “Her forehead was almost entirely open to view. It was huge, meaningful, touched with genius. It was a startling image, but it was also an act of treachery, an intrusion upon her inmost being. It laid bare all that Colette liked to conceal—and doubtless something about herself of which not even she was aware.”

Back in New York that same year, Mr. Penn devised a backdrop for portraits in his downtown studio by placing two tall stage flats together to create a narrow corner in which to photograph his subjects. Penn invented the corner, he has said, because he felt unequal to his famed subjects. Perhaps the novel backdrop had associations to his youth, when students were made to stand in a corner as punishment for misbehaving in class. Whatever the inspiration, it was clearly designed to give the photographer the upper hand during these sittings.

It’s easy to imagine that Penn’s subjects might have felt backed into that corner and thrown off guard. Truman Capote, for example, hardly the shrinking violet, wrapped himself in his coat and stood on a chair—cloaked, beseeching, trapped. Georgia O’Keeffe was uncomfortable in the corner. She later felt that Penn’s portrait diminished her in the space, and she hated it. She asked him to destroy it. He refused.

Surprisingly, given the artistic accomplishments of the people he photographed, Penn wasn’t one to study the work of his subjects before he shot them. Responding to a question sent in an e-mail about how he prepared for his sittings, he wrote: “A knowledge of a sitter’s artistic accomplishments generally contributed flavor to the sitting but was not absolutely necessary.” Nor did he offer his sitters much in the way of instruction. Penn was not known to direct people or to make small talk, though he once admitted to asking his sitters on occasion: “What does it feel like to realize that this eye looking at you is the eye of 1,200,000 people?”

In a published description of his 1957 session with Picasso in Cannes, France, Mr. Penn said he considered the artist “a great presence, deeply aware of his own image, he peered silently at the reflection of his head in the camera’s lens, occasionally altering the attitude.” Picasso’s penetrating eye resides at the center of Mr. Penn’s portrait of the artist, elegantly framed between the lines of his hat and coat as the rest of his face recedes in shadow. The frame, divided into sections, bares the geometric abstraction of the artist’s Cubist period. That Picasso was scrutinizing his own reflection in the lens of Penn’s camera is a delicious detail. We are given a true glimpse of his focused concentration, as if he were indeed peering intently into our eyes.

Of course, for every Picasso there is a Braque, for every Pollock, a de Kooning. Penn, too, was not alone at the top of his profession. Richard Avedon also worked for Mr. Liberman at Vogue. The rival photographers vied for pages, position, and subject matter. They even occasionally made portraits of the same people. While the two of them kept upping the ante in terms of imagination, style, and technique, each one succeeded in establishing a distinct visual signature. Avedon distilled the picture frame to nothing but his subject against a white backdrop—wrinkles, bad teeth, and all.

Penn simplified the picture frame, too, but he used light in sculptural terms. Penn’s photograph of Philip Roth recalls Rodin’s The Thinker, or, even, his majestic Balzac. You can study the lines of Roth’s face, as if for clues about the syntax of his sentences. The curls in Colette’s hair suggest the way her ideas bristle. The bulbous shape of Francis Bacon’s face echoes the forms in his paintings. Penn may not have made himself a student of his subjects, but he must have known exactly who his subjects were and the extent of their accomplishments. Their stature is what he always seems to render with an uncanny eye to history—theirs, and, perhaps, his own.