Irving Penn

In preparation for my Senior Thesis Project, I have begun to study the work of great photographers. I began this exploration by looking into the photographs of Irving Penn, a 20th Century photographer, mainly famous for working for Vogue Magazine.

I just finished looking through a book of Penn’s photographs: Beyond Beauty, a collection of Penn’s photographs amassed and organized by Merry A. Forresta. I will of course study his photographs in more detail within the next year-year and a half. But for now, I wanted to select several photographs that stood out to me explain why.

  • Veiled Face (Evelyn Tripp), New York, 1949


[I enjoy this photograph for a few reasons. First, the light source is behind the subject (Evelyn Tripp), relative to the camera. In my opinion, the copy of the picture in the book I purchased (Beyond Beauty), the light source has a greater effect on the subject of the photograph. It is nonetheless captured in this version of the photograph. The invasion of that light gives the photograph an ethereal character, and increases the contrast. Another reason I noted this photo lies in Tripp’s left eye looking toward the onlooker as only her profile is captured. This adds mystery to the composition of the photograph.]

  • Cecil Beaton, London, 1950


[A friend of mine who takes photographs said that portraiture can tell a story like no other form of photography because the human face naturally tells its story (this is not verbatim). I might agree. This is what drew me to this picture of Cecil Beaton (another photographer). Beaton’s countenance and wears invited me to imagine the story behind this man’s life.]

  • Cretan Landscape, 1964


[This photograph communicates to me, above anything else, motion. Capturing motion in a photograph can be difficult, considering that it is in the nature of a photo to be still. Nevertheless, Irving Penn does it so well. Yes, it’s blurry – but that is part of the intrigue. Like literature, music, and other forms of art, what draws me to it is its ability to take me somewhere. this photo does that for me.]

  • Single Oriental Poppy, New York, 1968


[I love this photograph for mainly two reasons. First, this shows Penn’s eye for texture. Texture might be what I seek most in a photograph. Second, Penn creates an increasingly beautiful photograph with a dead poppy – something that might be considered ugly or broken.]

  • Mouth (for L’Oreal), New York, 1986


[This photo, along with previous photo and the following photo, shows Penn’s talent for finding and displaying different textures. Here you see the smooth skin, as well as the short soft hairs of the model’s face. Then you see the painted texture on the lips. The contrast not only displays itself via texture, but also via color. The viewer sees the white-painted face in contrast to the eight or so differing lip cosmetics.]

  • Issey Miyake Fashion: White and Black, New York, 1990


[Lastly, this photo from 1990 combines three of my previous favorite pictures. Like the picture of Evelyn Tripp with the veil, this picture contains a woman with one eye showing. Second, this picture details an interesting texture, as the poppy and the mouth photos – the dress looks both stiff and free-flowing. Third, this motionless photo capture motion magnificently, as in the picture of the Cretan landscape.]


‘Neath the Willow

Weeping Willow

This reminds me of a song by The Oh Hellos, There Beneath:

There beneath the willow tree
I learned a lot about the way of things
I learned that everything (the wind, the leaves) has breath inside
They were pointing ever east
To see the ever-turning aeon cease
Their wills were ever bent on waiting with all their mightI know (I know)
I know this
There is beauty in the way of things

There beyond the palisade
I saw the morning lead a cavalcade
They made a marvel of a display
And it made me cry ‘o lai’

O lai (o lai)
O lai lord
There is beauty in the way of things

See Genius for annotations.

The Obvious Beauty

Oh, what are my grief and my trouble, if I am able to be happy? You know, I don’t understand how it’s possible to pass by a tree and not be happy to see it. To talk with a man and not be happy that you love him! Oh, I only don’t know how to say it… but there are so many things at every step that are so beautiful. Look at a child, look at God’s sunrise, look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that are looking at you and love you…

-Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

I took this picture in coastal Oregon, when I was on a trip with my parents. Since I had just graduated from my high school, my parents let me choose the location. I chose the Oregon coast in an attempt to visit a place that mimicked the rocky shores of Ithaca (Homer’s The Odyssey). I found much more than rocky shores. I was able to take hikes in beautiful woods, see rushing streams, read with my feet in the sand, and spend time with my family overlooking the most magnificent views. It just so happened that I was reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, while on this trip. This quote, even though I wasn’t far enough in the book while on the trip, makes me look back at this trip in a different light. It also makes me look at my current situation differently. How could I possibly be grieved or troubled? How could I be unhappy, when the Lord has blessed me with all that he has? Even if I was in a horrible place, struggling with grades, friends, and my spiritual life (which I am not currently), I could at least look at God’s creation and still be happy. I could look at my older brother and know that we love each other and be happy. I could have a conversation with my closest friends, knowing the depth of our bonds, and be happy. We always have something to be thankful for, and we always have something to be joyful about. Always. There is obvious and inherent beauty surrounding us every day. We need to wake up and realize what we have been blessed with.

[Photo by Joseph Jekel]