Photographer Irving Penn Remembered

Fashion and celebrity photographer Irving Penn died Wednesday at age 92. William Stapp, the founding curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, remembers Penn.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

BLOCK: Georgia O'Keeffe, Igor Stravinsky, Marcel Duchamp. The images became iconic, instantly recognizable for their style. Penn's sense of style also helped him become a noted fashion photographer, primarily for Vogue magazine. The photographer died today at his home in Manhattan. He was 92 years old.

Joining us now to talk about Irving Penn is William Stapp. He was the founding curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. Stapp was also co-curator of the Irving Penn Exhibit at what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

Mr. Stapp, thank you very much for joining us.

BLOCK: Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: I understand that Irving Penn at first wanted to become a painter but wound up becoming a photographer. How did that happen?

BLOCK: He went to work for Vogue magazine, I believe as a designer. And Alexey Brodovitch recognized his sense of style immediately and sort of converted him, turned him into a photographer. And very early in his career - almost immediately, in fact - he was given a cover photograph, which was a still life composition, if I remember correctly, of textiles and various things. And in fact, as his career progressed, he always kept that element of still life. That was an essential part of the way he approached making photographs.

NORRIS: You can spot an Irving Penn photograph...

BLOCK: Absolutely.

NORRIS: ...when you see it, largely because of the composition. How did he develop that style?

BLOCK: It's all rooted in still life, in a genuine sense. It's very carefully balanced, very precise. The other part of it is, is that one of the central issues of his photographs has to do with beauty and the different ways one perceives beauty.

Some of his most controversial pictures were a series of cigarette butts - or actually, street detritus that he did in the 1970s. They were large, handmade, platinum prints that he printed himself, beautiful, impressive works of subject matter that was just beyond mundane, it was dreck-y.

And it created an enormous amount of controversy when the works were shown, simply because there was this perceived imbalance between the subject matter that was ugly and the incredible beauty of the object that he produced, the photographic object.

NORRIS: It's really interesting that a man who took such beautiful photos seemed to have a certain degree of anxiety about having his own picture taken. I found this quote that was attributed to him. He said: The camera makes me nervous. And then he went on to say: It's like a razor blade. I'd like to protect myself from the incisions it can make. That's quite a statement for a man who spent a lifetime wielding that razor blade-like instrument.

BLOCK: Of course. He knew the danger. But he was a very private man. He didn't want to be a public figure. He did want to be respected as an artist. But he often, he wouldn't go to openings. He did not like to be photographed. And in fact, the only images that I can think of, of him - and there are a very few I can, probably less than a handful. And I think some of those - I know some of those are self-portraits that he did very late in life. And they're not flattering images. I mean, he was confronting his aging and his mortality in those pictures.

NORRIS: William Stapp, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

BLOCK: You're very welcome.

NORRIS: William Stapp is the founding curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. He's also a co-curator of the Irving Penn Exhibit at what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. And you can see some of Penn's photographs on NPR's photo blog. You'll find that at npr.org/pictureshow.

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