Irving Penn tribute by student Marty Weghorn

Written by COD Photo student Marty Weghorn on the occasion of the death of Irving Penn

Irving Penn, New York, 1951. Photo by Horst - Staley-Wise Gallery

Irving Penn, New York, 1951. Photo by Horst - Staley-Wise Gallery

Irving Penn, noted fashion and portrait photographer died today at the ripe old age of 92. I never knew him personally, but he had a significant effect on me and my outlook on art and photography.

Motivation is a strange beast. For some, an often empty puruit of money, power and/or fame is a their primary motivation. Others, a need to serve, a need to please or a need to achieve, educate or create is what drives them. Motivators can be negative, too – recently, Michael Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and ran through a life-long list of slights, insults and disses that spurred him on through the years to be arguably the best that’s ever played the game.

For myself, at least when it comes to photography, a sense of inadequacy or incompetence seems to drive me on to improve my skills and become better at the craft that I love. For instance, on more than one occasion I’ve been at school feeling rather pleased and downright smug about something I’ve produced…only to look over at someone else’s work and think to myself “dude, get back to work. you’ve got a long way to go.” In recent years the photography program isn’t as social and interactive as it used to be when almost every class had a darkroom component, and the opportunities to see others’ work – especially during the creative process – aren’t as frequent. So I look more to the outside world and the work of current and former professionals/artists for my inspiration/comeuppance.

Several years ago, I was enrolled in a History of Photography class taught by Jeff Curto. We had a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago for a private viewing/lecture downstairs in the library. On display were examples of pretty much every photographic printing technology ever invented, from daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, platinums, albumin, silver….all the way up to some garish 4′ x 6′ (that’s feet, not inches!) Iris print of an extreme close-up of the artist Chuck Close. Many of those prints were 50, 100, 150 years old and in the non-display collection of the AIC. It was a beautiful and awe-inspiring array.

But one image in particular really drew me. It called to me, you might say, from the other side of the room. The various prints were arranged somewhat chronologically so I was down in the middle 1800s being drawn to a much more contemporary photograph from the late 1950’s (ironically, it was printed using one of those archaic processes). The image – a portrait of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso – seemed familiar, like I’d seen it before, yet unfamiliar at the same time. When I finally worked my way down the line to it, I confirmed it was by Irving Penn, a photographer whose work I very much admired.

Pablo Picasso in La Californie, 1957, by Irving Penn 1917 - 2009

Pablo Picasso in La Californie, 1957, by Irving Penn 1917 - 2009

There was something about this print, though. Yes, I’d seen the image previously in books or online. But seeing the original! It’s akin to the difference between reading about childbirth and actually squeezing one out yourself! Like seeing a missile launch on TV and being on the signal bridge of the USS Harry W. Hill 40 feet or so away from the launcher when they fire off an ASROC!

You can see the exact Art Institute image here but you won’t feel its power viewing it on a monitor. You can see it here as well.

It’s a beautiful print. Outstanding. Photographic perfection. Approximately 20″x20″ of platinum-palladium love, printed by Mr. Penn himself. I stared at it. I walked away to look at other works only to come back time and again to inspect it some more. Not only was the image itself compelling and the subject an enigmatic icon himself, but this print was probably the most beautiful object I’ve ever seen. The tones, the richness. I’m almost embarrassed to admit this but it literally made my skin tingle and the hairs on the back of neck stand up (not unlike the time at the NFL Hall of Fame and the visceral reaction I experienced when I suddenly found myself 5 feet away from Dick Butkus’ actual scraped and scarred up helmet). Keeping this image in the private fridge instead of on public display is a crime against humanity.

OK. That may be taking it a little far but all I know is if I EVER create a photograph that beautiful, that incredible, I’ll have to sell all my gear and give up photography for good. I’ll have reached the pinnacle of my chosen craft. I’ll have reached a point where I can look around and see no peers, see no one who’s doing work any better than mine. I’ll have achieved everything to which I could aspire.

So goodbye, Mr Penn. Thank you for all those decades of superior images. Thank you for the pleasure your art has given me over the years. Thank you for the kick in the butt.

Rest in peace…


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