Irving Penn: Personal Work

Death Embodied: Irving Penn’s Realism

Four Raggeds, New York, 1975, ©The Irving Penn Foundation, Courtesy The Irving Penn Foundation, New York CityWhat is striking about the photographs that Irving Penn feels “personal” about—as distinct from the “impersonal” fashion photographs that made him famous—is their stark realism. And the deadness—actual or implied—of the objects pictured. There’s nothing glamorous about the decaying cigarette butts in Four Raggeds, a piece of torn and Twisted Paper, a disintegrating Mud [encrusted] Glove, a crushed Camel Pack and a flattened Paper Cup, all 1975, nor of all the debris pictured in Penn’s Underfoot series of 2000. A Bone Forest, 1980 is not the loveliest of places—certainly not as lovely as the gorgeous models he photographed—and the animal skulls Penn photographed in a 1986 series—those of a Brown Bear, Roe Deer, Mandrill and Zebra—are more repulsive and shocking than pleasing and seductive. Yet, strangely enough, they have more eye-catching charisma than the beautiful, classy women in his fashion photographs: Unadorned death, as ugly as it may be, turns out to be more fascinating than life, however dolled up in trendy clothing and cosmetics. For all of Penn’s personal objects—the objects he is personally drawn to, the objects he feels strangely comfortable with—embody death.

Just as Dürer’s St. Jerome (1513) kept a skull on his desk to remind him of his mortality, so Penn keeps a steady eye on his objects, for they are memento mori of his own death. We can’t imagine our own deaths, Freud said, but Penn does imagine his by photographing dead objects. His photographs are still lifes—the life in his objects has been literally stilled. It is the stillness of the grave, in which nothing moves. Isolated in the emptiness that often surrounds them—they seem laid out in the coffin of the photograph, silently on display for the morbid edification of the masses—they become tarnished relics in a church of consciousness. If photography at its profoundest involves projecting oneself into and identifying with the object photographed, then Penn is a very profound photographer. He keeps a steady, unblinking, fearless eye on his dead objects, fixated on them as though he was a marksman taking careful aim at a target, and then swallowing them whole in a single-minded gaze, so that they become an inseparable part of him—so-called internal or subjective objects, even as they remain undeniably external and objective.

No longer waste material, they become peculiarly noble: The crumbling cigarette butts in his Cigarette series (1972) have an oddly sculptural presence and grandeur—they all but fill the space. Strange as it may seem to say, they have the suffering bodiliness of Michelangelo’s heroic figures, especially his tormented “Slaves.” They are found objects, but perhaps Penn himself has smoked them, slowly burning himself out like them. They have character, and are, after all, “personal works.”

Penn’s photographs are not instantaneous snapshots, but long exposures, so that his objects seem marked by time—indelibly marked, making them peculiarly immortal. They announce inevitable death—catastrophic death, as their ruined state suggests—even as they remain uncannily alive. The skulls boldly gaze at us, the intimidating blackness of their empty eye sockets suggesting that they are inwardly alive—and horrifyingly human, indeed, all too strangely and entrancingly human. Used (and abused) by human beings, the cigarette butts, twisted paper, muddy glove, worthless objects underfoot also seem pathetically alive. Indeed, a tragic sense of life informs Penn’s personal photographs: his objects have that “death in life” quality typical of deep depression. To use Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholy, the personal photographs seem to be more melancholy than mournful—the objects (surrogate core selves) seem incurably melancholy rather than in a mournful trance, which Penn can snap out of.

He seems to do so in his exhilarating fashion photographs, suggesting that his art as a whole is bipolar, the sober death-infected personal photographs forming the depressive pole, the life-celebrating fashion photographs forming the manic pole. The models in the fashion photographs are often shown in movement, or in a dynamic pose, while the objects in the personal photographs are absolutely static. Penn turns away from death in his fashion photographs, but it holds him in its grip in his personal photographs. They convey death anxiety—existential fear of total annihilation. The personal photographs don’t come to terms with death, finally accepting its inevitability—however inevitably given, not to say implacably present, the dead objects are—but rather idolize death. His photographs turn mundane dead objects into mysterious idols, more pointedly, raw tombstones on nameless graves in a cemetery of memory.

I think Penn’s photographs allude to the Holocaust, however indirectly. His dead objects have a family resemblance to the personal objects the Jews had to give up before entering the gas chambers or being worked to death. The detritus underfoot is the Jews the Nazis stamped out. Penn was a first-generation American Jew—his family fled the ghettos of anti-Semitic Russia—and no Jew can forget the Holocaust. It is in his soul, an essential part of his being, and a constant threat to his body: it promises a cruel death and carries anti-Semitism to a nihilistic extreme. I am arguing that the dead objects Penn photographs signify dead Jews—have the significance of dead Jews. Identifying with the dead objects, he implicitly identifies with the dead Jews. At the least, Penn’s personal photographs are memento mori of the Jews exterminated and cremated in the Holocaust. All his objects have an ashen look, even the bodies of his young dancers. They seem to exist in the shadow of death, as the patina of shadow that dusts their skin suggests, and they are as naked as the Jews who went to the gas chambers were. The aesthetics of death fascinates Penn; bringing out the aesthetic quality of dead ugly objects he shows respect for dead Jews—ugly by the standards of Aryan beauty. Despite their decaying and dead state, Penn’s objects have integrity, like the Jews who died in the Holocaust. One can’t help but wonder if his burned cigarettes signify the Jewish bodies the Nazis burned.

If Penn’s fashion photographs reveal the lineaments of satisfied desire, then the personal photographs reveal the lineaments of painful death. If Penn’s extroverted fashion photographs repress, even deny, his Jewishness, then his personal photographs—his personalized view of death, conveyed through objects imbued with it (his photographic mastery of them suggests his determination to master his death anxiety, the dignity he accords them conveys his wish to die with dignity)—show the return of the repressed, the undeniability of Jewishness, and of course of death.

Roe Deer, Prague, 1986, ©The Irving Penn Foundation, Courtesy The Irving Penn Foundation, New York CityFinally, it should be noted that Penn’s fascination with rubbish is quintessentially modern. Johannes Itten told his Bauhaus students “to keep their eyes open, while out walking, for rubbish heaps, refuse dumps, garbage dumps, and scrap deposits.” Similarly, Hans Albers, another Bauhaus teacher, told his students that “everything and anything” found in “scrap heaps” and “the city dump” could be the subject matter of art. Kurt Schwitters, who used all kinds of rubbish—useless dead material, the discarded leftovers of life—to make his Merz collages, said it symbolized “life’s chaos (tragedy).” Used in art, it became “sublime,” he argued, that is, seemed to transcend its miserable condition: It became ecstatically lived experience rather than depressingly dead fact. Perceived through the lens of art, it became astonishing and marvelous. Van Gogh expressed a similar sentiment when, in an 1882 letter, he celebrated as a “real paradise…the place where the street-cleaners dump the rubbish. My God, it was beautiful!” He was searching for a model, as he said, and found it in “rusted and bent” things, regarded as trash by society. They were the perfect model, for their imperfection corresponded to his sense of his own imperfection, his feeling that he was rusted and bent, unfit for life, more pointedly, a victim of life.

He personalized them by painting them, just as Penn personalized his imperfect objects by photographing them. However different their medium, both used it to remarkable effect: both men have a remarkable power of concentration—concentrate on their subject matter as though nothing else existed in the world. I suggest that the rubbish Penn accumulates—saves, preserves and cherishes in his photographs as though they were priceless treasures—symbolizes his own sense of being a victim of life, more particularly a Jewish victim, regarded by the Nazis as unfit for life. He forgot that he was a Jew when he made his fashion photographs, which were in principle society photographs, for they showed how one could look one’s upper class best in society, show oneself to be rich and privileged—but he remembered that he was a Jew in his personal photographs, reminded himself that he was a poor Jew when he arrived in America, always in danger of being extinguished, like a cigarette butt, crushed like a can—annihilated as though one had never existed. His fashion photographs have an exhibitionistic, extravagant quality, a carefully tailored joie de vivre; his personal photographs are excruciatingly intimate—oppressively introverted—and sad.

“Irving Penn: Personal Work,” was exhibited at the Pace/Macgill Gallery in New York from January 29 through March 5, 2016.

—Donald Kuspit