Late last night I read the news that photographer Irving Penn had died at age 92. Although he was widely known as a fashion photographer, his career spanned many radically different phases but the common thread through all was his clean, spare style and his particular view of the world.
Portraits, still lifes, ethnic studies, nudes, almost nothing escaped the gaze of Penn’s camera and was transformed in the process. Penn was an inveterate experimenter in photographic processes having almost single-handedly, in the 1960s, brought back the nineteenth-century art of the handmade platinum/palladium print.
He was an adept master printer in the darkroom, turning out beautifully luminous photographs on gelatin silver fiber paper, the common black and white photographic paper of the day and used workaday methods such as bleaching and toning to bring his subjects alive on the paper. Penn realized that the art of the photographer lie not only in clicking the shutter but in revealing that image in now seemingly anachronistic alchemic methods which remain unmatched in quality and beauty. The integrity of the artist having a hands-on dialogue with his materials from spark of creation to finished print is Penn’s legacy to all creative persons.
He was known as a perfectionist, but we know that perfection can never be attained no matter how hard we try, for in the moment it is within reach it becomes a sterile and inhuman thing and shatters into fragments. Penn never achieved the perfection he was looking for, but what he did achieve was resonance and there can be no greater achievement for an artist than to have an audience who feels the reverberations of knowingness when they gaze upon your work.