Human Flower Project
Irving Penn’s Human Vases
In his prime, the venerable photographer composed unforgettable human flower portraits.
Dandelion, New York, c. 1973
Photo: Irving Penn via Pace MacGill Gallery
We remember Irving Penn’s pictures from Vogue magazine in the 1960s, the odd, stylish staginess of them. There would be Jean Shrimpton posing in a skirt made out of thatch, standing in some slightly chilly, indeterminate space. Jean as ethnographic artifact.
Today we learned that Penn, photographer of Picasso and the Hell’s Angels, has been making portraits of flowers for forty years. Pace MacGill Gallery in New York is now showing 23 of these works, the earliest made in 1967, the most recent from last year: peonies, anemones, poppies, and an especially fine dandelion spattered with water drops. According to Bloomberg, “Prices range from $22,000 to $125,000.”
This entertaining reviewer, after scolding the gallery staff for snootiness, writes of the pictures, “I’m sure they’ll look wonderful over your park avenue sofa. But, for the most part, it’s straight, factual, boring, somewhat uncomplicated photography, that any first year photo student could probably create.” We think this is a bit unfair; first year photo students are usually doing much more ingenious work than this.
Penn isn’t alone in his sofaesthetics. With some beloved exceptions, we find flowers-only photographs drain the room of oxygen. Pictures of cut-flowers, especially, exhale a necrophilic spirit we don’t care much for (perhaps an occupational hazard of photography in general?).
Woody Allen as Chaplin
New York, 1972
Photo: Irving Penn
National Gallery of Art
Looking back over some of Penn’s career, though, we have come upon another, far more exciting collection of prints: his human flower projects. The earliest is this magical bridal portrait: “Mrs. Amory Carhart, New York, 1947.” Holding a bouquet, her dress gathered into flounces topped with satin-fabric flowers, the young bride wears a serious sidelong look, as ominous black cables writhe in the foreground.
Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn (Penn’s own Mrs.) in a photo from 1950 is as elegant as John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, but more fetching and startling with an armband of saucer-sized roses.
And perhaps best known, Penn’s portrait of Woody Allen shows where Annie Liebovitz got her chops. Allen’s been done up as Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, sadly sniffing a white rose. (A poster of this photo hung in our former dentist’s office.)
“Irving Penn: In Flower” (botanicals only) will be up through February 17th at Pace MacGill, 32 E. 57th St.. May we recommend an exhibit of Penn’s dynamic human-flowers for the 2008 season.