Two Aspects of Photography:

Irving Penn and Louise Lawler


Charles Molesworth

Two recent exhibitions highlighted the remarkable talents of two very different photographers, Irving Penn and Louise Lawler1 . Together (and singly) they have produced works of extensive variety that are based on a range of assumptions, assumptions about subject matter, technical skill, audience reception and the larger socio-cultural web of meanings and associations. Yet most worthy of reflection is how much they differ about the things that really matter.

The Penn exhibition draws on his career-long and varied range of artful photographs, though including most famously his work as a fashion photographer for Vogue magazine, where it could be said he redefined that genre. With fashion photography as the art form posing the question, it is often the subject matter and our approach to it that make up the answer. What and how is the photographer trying to make us see? What is the singular focus? For Penn the first tentative answer is the surface of theatrical self-presentation, the body visually enwrapped as the support in and through the garment and the pose. In short, fashion photography. For Lawler the hovering answer is the frame and the way it holds the object and its optic values in its social grasp. Both photographers want us to see what is there, but to see their subjects as being posed (Penn) or held (Lawler) in such a way as to reveal their truer impress, their otherwise fugitive aspects. For Penn it is the gaze, even the stare, while for Lawler it is the format of meaning and the shapes of regard.

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Penn became so famous as the photographer at Vogue that it’s hardly a stretch to dub him the inventor of fashion photography. In a less fame-making way, Lawler has utilized some of the assumptions of art theory and a canny sense of visual semantics to become a leading master of feminist and conceptualist picture-making. (Please allow the masculine category for the moment.) Innovations from both artists include using photographs as the central medium of their work while also branching out beyond their signature styles. Penn once resorted to nudes, to commonplace subjects (such as his stunning shots of cigarette butts), ethnographic studies and still-lifes. In every case the stress is on polish and chic. One critic has invoked Walter Benjamin and his model of the flaneur, who wanders through the modern city estheticizing everything he sees: “This idle stroller is adrift in the city, his passive senses exquisitely attuned. His greatest luxury is to have no purpose. Like the photographer and his subjects, he is a solitary figure.”2 .

In the case of one of Penn’s most famous photos, his wife holds her head in such a way to justify the gown she’s wearing. The photograph – “Rochas mermaid dress (modeled by Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn),” Paris, 1950. Platinum-palladium print, 1980 – is in the expensive but beautiful medium of platinum prints that Penn helped revitalize. One might recall the scientific claim that the human eye can distinguish among 16,000 different shades; here it’s on restricted but rewarding display, as black, white and the greys between them are shown in their fullest range. A similar photograph (“The Twelve Most Photographed Models, New York,” 1947. Gelatin silver print) shows a dozen versions of the Fonssagrives. It was in fact at the shoot for this elaborate display that Penn met Fonssagrives, who soon became his wife. The memories in the photograph register a real love story and a symbolic forecast of the post-war richness that would soon bring America to its position as a super power. Of course it’s easy to over-read a work like this after it’s become iconic. Still, the Penn technique of not using props or settings in his fashion shots suggests a kind of insouciance and plentitude that would characterize American values for the next two decades. Penn and Vogue worked together at the center of a cultural moment that became the equal of Paris in the ‘twenties. The models and celebrities that merited a Penn portrait were part of a system of the production and consumption of a new form of wealth and ostentation.

A reprise of sorts to the shot of the dozen models takes place when Penn used his wife as a single model in his “Woman in Chicken Hat” (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), 1949, an outrageously chic image where the black and white of the chicken’s feathers caress the right cheek and shoulder of Fonssagrives as the lady regards us with an over-the-shoulder glance perfectly suspended between a disdain so mild as almost not to register and a deft blankness that has no tale urgently worth telling. Part of the recurring pleasure of looking at Penn’s most typical fashion portraits is calculating just how much of the attendant psychology is on offer. Are the women real, in any fixed sense of the term? Or do they hang around like pictures of themselves? But this particular staged image summarizes Penn’s achieved style, giving him the signature that his peers – like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott – achieved in natural settings rather than elaborately arranged shoots.

Take another moment and consider “Black and White Fashion with Handbag (Jean Patchett), New York,” 1950, printed April 2003, as assortments of high fashion objects, hat, purse, and so forth, generate a sort of mid-career Picasso where cubism has put aside its right angles in favor of curves and slides that seek their own focal point. The handle of the purse and the brim of the hat look like brush strokes in a cubist painting that has decided to abandon straight lines. Meanwhile the model’s face is only slightly visible, since her expression has been removed or surrendered to the shielding curve of her elaborately brimmed hat.

Penn, like many master photographers, devoted time and effort to representing the nude in all its art-history fullness, which meant on occasion not idealizing or even eroticizing the subject. Here is a passage where Anthony Lane, normally the movie reviewer for The New Yorker, wrestles with his experience in 2002 of having recently seen Penn’s exhibit, “Earthly Bodies.” Instead of the calm dispassionate poses of fashion photography, Lane was faced with a collection of Penn’s nudes, which were headless shots of reclining naked women whose appearance was made striking by their plus size. Lane exercises rather elevated rhetoric to get his points across. This exhibit could seem to be the antipode to a haute couture fashion shoot 3 .

Looking at the show, I began to envisage Penn as a quiet American cousin of the Catherine Deneuve character in “Belle de Jour.” She, blessed with a husband who looks like a male model and behaves like a perfect gent, seeks afternoon solace in the paws of the misshapen and the voluminous, as if to reassure herself, like Penn, that beauty is not always truth, and that truth comes in different sizes.

This exhibit took place in 2002, but many of the nude portraits in it were taken several years earlier. Violating the standards that have made fashion models almost seem a species apart, Penn framed the shots so as to exclude the head of the model, and showed bluntly her less than svelte curves. Only one example had appeared in Vogue, the artiest of fashion magazines, and most were kept out of the public eye. Lane goes on to supply the backstory of the delayed exposure, so to speak.

Alexander Liberman [Penn’s editor at Vogue], whose tastes were honorably catholic, smelled something blasphemous in the pictures, and no more were reproduced in the magazine. Even Edward Steichen, then heading the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, was ruffled. He asked Penn to contribute a selection of work to a forthcoming symposium but added, conspiratorially, “None of those nudes.” Thus rebuffed, or simply misunderstood, Penn chose not to exhibit more than a few of them for thirty years.

Simply put, Penn often worked at the behest of others, and as such for many he failed to stand out as the perfect modernist hero who defies conventions for all of us. Liberman, in an interview with Martin Filler, once went so far as to testify that “Penn has never had an original idea in his life, it all comes from me. I always need to give him a sketch of exactly what I want because he has no imagination.”4 . This startling group of nudes, however, resulted from Penn’s off-duty work, so to speak, for it wasn’t done on assignment from Vogue or any other magazine; Penn was on his own. Had he gone too far, and, cut loose from the generic limits he had himself defined, stood too alone?

Many have raised the question of how Penn and his art are beholden to the world of capitalist hegemony and the values of conspicuous consumption. No one needs to read Thorstein Veblen to understand that Penn’s art is in thrall to the celebration of material excess and economic power. Could he make high art out of a milieu that was so unreservedly devoted to aggressive consumption? This background debate remains muted among critics who praise Penn’s originality, but the critics are left to evaluate the sense of elegance and leisure-class indulgence that are admixed in his sense of beauty. He once identified his desideratum, when staging his shoots, as looking for “the light of Paris as I had imagined it, soft but defining.” That last phrase perfectly captures the strength and the narcotic effect of untold wealth when seen by the impecunious.

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In terms of an anchoring personality, Lawler comes across as much more sly than Penn, much more suspicious of the field in which she diligently labors and casually subverts. Like him she doesn’t dabble in easy psychology, but maintains at least the illusion of mastery. Derived in part from the example of the so-called Pictures Generation, which was concerned with escaping excess abstraction or barren minimalism, and prized the blunt, even aggressive presentation of insistent images, Lawler appears to have set out to return photography to a confrontational plainness. Along the way she saw what happens when we look at – or view –pictures and are guided by how the frame of the picture controls its meaning. As the real is framed when shot, so the shot is framed by the photographer’s choices about how to show us the picture (while also showing us how to preserve and value the privileged moment of the “taking” of the picture).

Framing, as a physically grounded act and an esthetic decision, means sizing and orienting and isolating and many other operations that are conditioned and regulated by codes that often remain implicit and not directly obvious in the act of viewing art; it can be a cleansing operation or a masking one, depending on which code one observes. This “meta-level,” whereby one can shift one’s focus in order to see how the frame itself becomes part of one’s seeing, remains a steady concern for all visual artists, and, to a lesser extent, those who are trained viewers. Lawler steadfastly explores the codes that govern the display of art, noting that framing can make the viewer conscious of the social habits that obtain in museums and galleries. This becomes her version of what has been called “institutional critique.” Here she pits herself against the controlling codes of the art-world. This heighted awareness of the multi-layered contexts of looking at pictures often operates beyond the visual attention of most viewers. In plain terms, the artist cares more about who hangs the picture, and who owns it or offers it for sale or fetishizes it or curates its display, than does the average viewer.

This means a certain sort of explanation is in order. Several examples suggest themselves. Take “Monogram” of 1984. It’s a vertical silver dye bleach print of a king-size bed whose bed spread is adorned with an elaborate monogram (that reads, roughly, as FTH) and topped off with four square pillows. Hanging on the wall above the head of the bed is a Jasper Johns painting of an all white American flag, as iconic as it is expensive. The photo takes in both the Johns and the bed with an almost solemn tone that gathers its force from a sense of distance and intimacy. As it works with and against the high society status conferred by the very expensive Johns, the set-up becomes at once offhand and quite cheeky. Just another wall hanging in your bedroom? Yes, but you may likely see it differently from the ordinary DIY home decorating project. As with Penn’s fashion items, here the Johns work reads un-ignorably as an expressive sign of considerable wealth. The illusion of calm mastery is produced with a coded use of the rules of representation. But if we can domesticate a masterpiece, by hanging it in someone’s bedroom rather than, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then our inability to own it outright may be assuaged, at least marginally. Lawler repeats this balancing act over and over, as our desire for the Johns painting itself collides with and intensifies our knowing it is out of reach. In her esthetic consideration of how the painting is hung there arise many different valuations, many shades of acquisitive desire, all of them embedded in one another. (Marianne Moore has a poem on this set of issues, entitled “When I Buy Pictures”)5 .

One of the ways the artist can use institutional critique is to bring even his or her own art-making activity under suspicion. Lawler does this when she dissolves or redraws the very limits of framing. The most striking example of this reframing of her photographs involves her making a hyper-large blow up, printing the result on a sheet of vinyl and pasting it on one of the walls in the exhibit. The print is overtaken by the environment, with the “dimensions variable,” as Lawler plays with one of the codes (that the picture and its frame should be specified as to measurement) that determine the framing process. With variable dimensions, and the use of anamorphic distortions, Lawler thus creates (or is it de-creates?) one of her shots as an extended piece of designed wall paper. (Wallpaper is one of those things we see without looking at, or look at without seeing. It often challenges the rules of representation, but usually by being ordinary rather than opulent.) This elaborate process giganticizes the photograph even as it shows us just how far distortion can go without destroying its subject.

A distinct example of this rendering that distorts scale lies in one of the exhibit’s wonders, “Pollyanna (adjusted to fit) distorted for the times.” A large printed vinyl sheet has on it an inked reproduction of an assembled group of seven different photographs, all distorted by something like a fun-house mirroring. So what do we end up with? A wall covering (of vinyl sheeting) that is hung (by pasting it) on a wall, where seven (normally quadrilateral) frames contain the various images that are here elongated and bent out of shape, while they still (barely) maintain their status as a group of normal pictures. We have, in other words, something like a riot of representation as a set of codes undoes its formal prescriptive curbs or checks. We are here shown how much can be done to a picture if its frame is up for grabs.

If “Pollyanna” undercuts the fixity of her photographs by turning them into a manipulated sheet of adhesive vinyl, her other use of this high-tech medium works to undermine the content of the images in her photographs. Take one of the most striking, “Pollock and Tureen (traced),” which exists in two formats, or frames, one a regularly sized color photograph and the other an enlarged reproduction of that photograph in the manner described below. The “regular sized” picture of the Pollock and the tureen is a usual Lawler subject where the significance of the hanging of an art work is conditioned by its placement in a different sort of framed situation. Here the lower edge of a Jackson Pollock that hangs on the wall hovers over an elaborate soup tureen, decorated and glazed, and sitting on an otherwise bare table. (This clearly resembles the setup in “Monogram.” Lawler has similarly produced dozens of framed pictures, and pictured frames, in her main body of work.) The lines of the Pollock echo and are yet further scrambled by the floral design on the tureen.

Then, however, Lawler has transformed (or reframed) the regular sized photographic print, first by enlarging it to something like wall size (dimensions variable), then taken an instrument and drawn the outlines in the photograph onto a sheet of blank white vinyl, of the type used in “Pollyanna.” What we get is what looks like a giant pen and ink still-life large scale drawing of a setting with objects, the Pollock and the tureen, that are like ghostly echoes of the objects in her original photographic surface. As Lawler drains off all the visual detail by the act of tracing, the result itself becomes a kind of framing of the lines of the photograph, but shorn of all color. She has re-framed and hence transformed one of her works into another work, using only graphic outlines to “picture” and evoke the meaning of the painting and the tureen. (There are seven other such “tracings” in the show.)

Lawler employs a range of techniques – framing, reframing, enlarging, tracing, juxtaposing, printing, reproducing – all in ways that are sometimes playful, but challenging, sometimes gently mocking and sometimes with a touch of bitter satire. Instead of classic abstractions that define and redefine objects by and into volumes and patterns, Lawler, by never abandoning her commitment to the actual, always shows us a part of the real world, but one displayed in an “unreal way.” As she put it once, “a picture is no substitute for anything.” This makes the picture resolutely itself, even if it has been through other versions of itself. It also suggests that Lawler doesn’t value pictures over real things; every picture has a real object that it points to but can never replace.

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One easily derives considerable pleasure and information from looking at Penn as a fashion photographer and Lawler as centered on institutional critique. But both artists have broad ranges of interests and approaches. Penn devotes some of his energies to geographical and ethnographic interests, and his work with pre-industrial societies can easily be seen as an antidote to his fashion work. Similar approaches are on show in both his Vogue covers and his ethnographic subjects. Lawler uses as supports for small scale reproductions of her photographs several kinds of mementos taken from a panoply of the ephemera of dailiness, the matchbooks and postcards and invitations that in fact function as re-framing gestures and so lead back to her main themes. It is as if she is tracing the tentacles of the art world from their smaller locations to their most expensive embraces.

Penn and Lawler have both elevated the status of photography and shown us, respectively, how the surface and the frame guide those of us who are determined to see.