Irving Penn’s Timeless Images

 by Sarah Finn, Fashion Publishing

Irving Penn's "Mascara Wars"

Irving Penn’s “Mascara Wars”

Irving Penn (1917-2009) was always more than a magazine photographer. His still-lives and his portraits, which began appearing in Vogue as early as 1943, had established him as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Outside the publishing world he had a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum (1977), and a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (1984). As such, Penn is one of the only photographers in history who has been so well respected in both the publishing and art communities. His pieces in Vogue transformed the magazine into more than just fashion and celebrity pieces; his images gave a depth and deeper meaning to the publication and the stories they accompanied. The piece, Mascara Wars (2001), is a perfect example of the ways in which Penn was able to use his commissioned work to make a greater statement about a certain issue. When I saw this piece at the exhibition of his work, “On Assignment” at the Pace/ MacGill Gallery in Chelsea, I was blown away by all the meaning it held over twelve years after it had originally appeared in Vogue.

Mascara Wars was originally placed in the July 2001 issue of Vogue following a feature titled “Lashing Out,” about the cosmetic battle brewing between the top mascara companies at the time. It was displayed as a full-bleed, full spread following the article.  From an editorial design standpoint, it was a bold choice having a full spread of densely laid text with no art, be followed by such a shocking image. Two mascara wands pull at a woman’s eyelashes while applying thick and clumpy mascara to her already coated lashes. Her skin has been painted white as to make the eye the most dominating part of the image. There is a fierce contrast between the green of her iris and the red of the blood vessels that have been popped in the-would-be white of her eye. The shape of a strobe light surrounds her pupil, which is very small and constricted because of the amount of light shining on her face. The large eye stares the viewer down; the look of fear in the woman’s gaze is apparent to anyone flipping the publication, or walking by it in a gallery. If you hadn’t read the article that preceded the photo, you probably would have gone back to find out what it was about.

Over time, many well known artists have been published in magazines. However, it is rare that a commissioned piece taken specifically for a publication is then taken and perceived as a work of art. Other photographers have had similar exhibitions and success that Irving Penn has received. Some prominent ones that have also appeared and worked for in Vogue and its brethren are the photographers Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz. While both photographers’ images are always compelling and to a certain extent timeless like Penn’s, none provide the deeper meaning his wok always provoked—elevating whatever publication it accompanied more than a celebrity, lifestyle, or fashion issue.

Over the years Penn’s images have tested time, he saw five editors come and go at Vogue from 1943 when he first went on assignment to his death in 2009. Anna Wintour, the renowned Editor in Chief of the magazine, gave a speech on the photographer at Pratt in 2011. In the lecture she stated Penn’s unique ability to transcend time and help transform Vogue into the greatest magazine it could be:

“When I came to Vogue in 1988, Irving Penn’s greatness was really beyond dispute… It took me some time to realize how important he could still be to Vogue, way beyond the fashion images. With portraits, still lives, food, and beauty pictures. Just one or two an issue. The fact that he wasn’t doing 20 page fashion stories could actually make his work stand out more sharply and strengthen Vogue.”

Irving Penn was not only a great magazine photographer; he was a great artist. Unlike other photographers he has been compared to, Penn’s pieces have transformed publications, providing depth and deeper meaning than the fashion stories or celebrity features that surrounded them. His pieces, like “Mascara Wars”, continue to make viewers stop and think, about (yes) their striking beauty, but also about the hidden themes that lay beneath them.