From the Introduction to Irving Pennby John Szarkowski (1984)
After the war Penn returned immediately to Vogue, where he photographed continually, making fashion pictures, still lifes, portraits, and clever, atmospheric confections that touched more or less directly on the world of theater. During 1947, the second year after his return, the essential Penn - what now might be called the historic Penn - emerged. The calm spareness of vision and manner in his pictures was breathtaking. Seen against the background of the various trilling, ornamental styles that had seemed intrinsic to the very substance of fashion magazines, they seemed to represent a new beginning.
It was perhaps in portraiture and in still life rather than in fashion that Penn first found full confidence in his own intuitions. Several of his earliest memorable portraits, including George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken and John Marin, were made in 1947, as was his riotous, joyful Still Life with Watermelon, one of the triumphs of color photography. Beginning the next year Penn made many portraits in Europe, whose older painters and writers had been largely hidden from American audiences during the war years, and whose younger ones were generally known only to specialists. The portraits of artists, especially, were an adventure for the youthful Penn because he knew and admired their work. His 1948 photograph Joan Miro and his Daughter Dolores is in part a homage to the painting made ten years earlier by Balthus.
It is not likely that a free lance photographer would have gained access to so impressive a list of subjects; the support and influence of an important magazine was essential. At times the largess of Vogue's support was almost overwhelming. When the car bearing the photographer, photographic equipment, an editor, and assistants pulled up before the entrance to the subject's fourth floor, cold water walk up, it did not improve the chances of a successful sitting. Penn learned to find a plausible excuse to be dropped off around the corner so as to present himself to the sitter as unencumbered and as quietly as possible. It was (and is) his idea that the portraitist must seem a servant to the sitter (even if sometimes a stern and demanding one), one whose function it is to attend and encourage the sitter's self revelation. Whether the portraitist should actually be what he seems is a more complex question.
Recalling his early years at Vogue, Penn remembers himself, probably disingenuously and surely hyperbolically, as a street savage surrounded by sophisticates. This neat equation is perhaps suspect at both ends. In the photographs of the youthful Penn he seems to resemble not so much a street savage as a schoolmate of Keats. As for the sophistication of the others at Vogue, it is surely true that some of them were people of broad culture and experience, and that most of the rest had learned to play that role. It is also surely true that the aspect of sophistication was in those years the magazine's most precious asset, and one that would not be sold cheaply.
In 1949 Liberman told Penn to buy a dinner jacket and go to Paris to see the new collections - not to work, but to familiarize himself with the world in which he was working: how it talked, walked, ate, and drank, and how it conducted business. Penn enjoyed the visit very much.
In 1950 Penn photographed the Paris collections and produced a series of photographs that remain almost equally memorable, and that revised the terms on which future fashion photographs would, for awhile, be considered. The best of the earlier work - by de Meyer, Steichen, Beaton, Hoynigen Huene, and others - now seems close to theater, with the dress and its model playing a role. But Penn's 1950 pictures provide no references to plot or circumstance, no suggestions of old chateaux, or perfect picnics, or delicious flirtations in Edwardian drawing rooms, or footlights, or avant Freudian dream worlds. They are not stories, but simply pictures. Within the boundaries of a classically simple photographic vocabulary, they effect a translation, into pictorial terms, of the idea and the spirit of another artist's work - the couturier's work.
Penn claims, with a modest and disarming smile, that the simplicity of his approach to fashion was inspired by ignorance. He did not know which sideboard or candelabra or period wallpaper to use with which dress, and therefore discovered by necessity the beauties of the seamless paper background. Without questioning Penn's candor, it can be pointed out that the traditional solution to this problem, if it was a problem, was to greet anachorism as a creative ally, and to photograph the ball gowned models with a horse in what appears to be an immaculate abattoir, as Steichen had; or to seat the subject in a surrealistic wheelbarrow, as Man Ray had. Beaton wrote later that the fashion photographers of the thirties had indulged themselves in a "recklessness of style.... Badly carved cupids from junk shops on Third Avenue would be wrapped in Argentine cloth or cellophane. Driftwood was supposed to bring an air of neo romanticism to a matter of fact subject. Christmas paper chains were garlanded around the model's shoulders, and wooden doves, enormous paper flowers from Mexico, Chinese lanterns, doilies or cutlet frills, fly whisks, sporrans, egg beaters, or stars of all shapes found their way into our hysterical and highly ridiculous pictures."
The economy and concentration of Penn's fashion pictures echoed his work in portraiture. In contrast to the prevalent magazine style of the years around 1950, his portraits are free of reference to the sitter's work or habitual environment. Writers are not photographed at their work tables, or even walking on the beach, thinking, but in a photographer's studio, in an improvised space made to appear as anonymous, as value free, as a photographer's studio. In many of Penn's early portraits the presence of the studio is insistent; we are allowed to see the electrical cables, or the edges of the backdrop, and feel the impersonal, conventional north light (real or contrived) falling on these subjects as it had on a thousand others before them. There is a suggestion of shabbiness about this studio. The floor bears the scars of earlier sittings, and the somber gray carpet, artfully spread over coffee tables and soft drink cases, is raveled at the edges. The studio presents itself as the functional workroom of an honest craftsman who is clearly unaware of the requirements of high elegance. After all those badly carved cupids and all that driftwood this would have been a perfect strategy, even for a photographer of modest talent who, after the novelty of simplicity had worn thin, could have adopted or adapted a new idea, and then another, etc.
Penn has never changed his first idea of portraiture; he has merely simplified what at first seemed almost irreducibly simple, so that by the late fifties even the anonymous studio disappeared, and there remained no environment at all, only a wordless conversation between the photographer and the sitter. If both principals are alert, and willing to accept the risk of humiliating failure, and if they are lucky, the collaboration may produce a picture that seems to touch the subject's soul. Such high success may be hoped for, but the odds of achieving it are statistically not good. Not even Holbein or Velazquez always achieved it. It is, however, not the product of arbitrary chance. Among photographers, Nadar had no apparent skills or esoteric knowledge that were unavailable to the other distinguished French portrait photographers of his day, but he succeeded more often in giving us a person who would, if not mute, tell us something marvelous. Or to start with the sitter, one might consider why there are so many moving portraits of Abraham Lincoln and so few, or none, of his contemporary Napoleon III, who apparently spent much of his career as Emperor being photographed. Perhaps it is because Lincoln had so deep a curiosity about other men that he did more than half the work, and brought even ordinary photographers to a state of alert participation and confidence that made them, for a time, equal collaborators.
One of Penn's recent sitters, the anthropologist Lionel Tiger, has written with unusual candor and perception of the demands required of the person portrayed, and of the possible rewards. As his sitting proceeded, and he entered into the spirit of the peculiar event,
The act became a duet... I was a performer not even of my own self, but in the context of something new to me, which demanded a highly complex effort. I had both some grasp of distance from myself, and yet a full sense of immersion in that person who was Penn's subject.... I recall the sense of giving more than I had, of being more than I was, of telling more than my story... a symmetry of intent between myself and Penn seemed to have become created.An extraordinary portrait is by definition rare. The successful professional will, however, produce with regularity a picture that looks good, that has some variety of quality or style, and that will satisfy or delight the client and perhaps even the sitter, who in the world of high fees are almost never the same person. Penn's famous portrait of Picasso, with the great cyclopean eye, the bullfighter's cape, the ethnic hat, the dramatic lighting, etc., seems to this viewer a marvelous triumph of skill, an admirable act of legerdemain, but something less than a true portrait, if one takes as a standard the picture of S. J. Perelman, for example. This is the record of a collaborative disclosure, or discovery, of a self.