Vintage News | Nick Knight on Irving Penn

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Bee, New York, 1990 Credit: Irving Penn Foundation/Conde Nast



I discovered Irving Penn in the Seventies, when I was at art college in Bournemouth learning about the masters – Weegee, Avedon, Bert Stern. As a photographer, you dip in and out of liking other people’s work – different kinds of images appeal to you at different times in your life. But with Penn, who was born in New Jersey in 1917, I’ve only ever felt admiration.

I kept coming back to him. Whenever I’ve needed a refresher in how to make something work, it’s Penn I look at. Whether it was a fashion portrait or an image of a bomb shelter, he had such elegance – a refined intelligence, you might call it – in his pictures.

In the mid-Eighties, I went to an exhibition of his work in London with my wife, Charlotte, and I remember being blown away by his photographs of flowers from the Sixties. Later, I became infatuated by roses and spent years making photographs of them, with at least one eye on Penn, as a kind of tribute. Nature is such an unconstructed kind of beauty, whereas a lot of what I photograph – and what Penn photographed – has been constructed. A lot of work goes into creating a beautiful image these days. I wonder if we photograph flowers as a kind of release from all that rigmarole.

I never met Penn, but in 2002 Vogue commissioned me to photograph Dorian Leigh Parker and other models he worked with and dated in the Fifties and Sixties. Odd the things you learn when taking portraits – your subject gets nervous and tends to talk. I didn’t want to know what Penn was like as a lover – it would be like hearing about your parents! Of course, he was a young man, working in the fashion industry, but we tend to put people on pedestals. He – they – were just people trying to make sense of the world like everyone else.

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