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Matinee: Wintour On Irving Penn Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

26 April 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the thirtieth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Pratt Lecture Series: Anna Wintour.

Irving Penn is an elusive if compelling subject. But this 36-minute Pratt lecture begins with a 15-minute portrait of him illustrated with some of his most important images by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, the devil who wore Prada and who hired Gordon Parks.

Penn, who died in 2009, made his mark in fashion photography, portraits and still lifes -- and Vogue eagerly published some of each. Wintour is a great admirer of Penn's work.

He attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art where he studied drawing, painting, graphics and the industrial arts under Alexey Brodovitch. Brodovitch hired the student to work at Harper's Bazaar where he was the art director. The publication even bought some of Penn's drawings.

After graduation Penn worked as a freelance designer before trying his hand at photography and becoming art director at Saks Fifth Avenue. After a year in that position, he took a year off to visit Mexico and the rest of the U.S., painting and taking photographs.

When he returned to New York, Vogue hired him in the art department where he did page layouts. But it wasn't long until a photograph of his graced the magazine's cover.

He opened his own studio in New York, where he did commercial photography while contributing to Vogue.

His portraits were unusual, posing people on a lump of rug on between collapsing stage partitions. He shot the famous: the dancer Martha Graham; artists Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Georgia O'Keeffe; the poet W. H. Auden; the composer Igor Stravinsky; and from the film world Alfred Hitchcock, Al Pacino. Among others.

During his long career he used many different cameras, famously switching from Leica to Nikon for the single lens reflex design, which he found particularly helpful using the telephoto focal lengths he favored.

He also used a Rollieflex, Deardorff view cameras and even a 12x20 banquet camera. Penn also experimented with printing techniques, using a point source enlarger of his own design to print images in pigment on porcelain-coated steel sheets and for contact printing on gelatin silver paper or in platinum.

In her presentation, Wintour calls Penn "an extraordinary man," one of the most important artists of the 20th century. She ends her remarks with a description of Irving's bedside lamp, "his closest friend," he said. It is also a metaphor for his work, she concludes. "The light doesn't fail."

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