Irving Penn and his women: from absurd to sublime

Irving Penn, a master of American portraiture and fashion photography has always intrigued me by using the same sober backgrounds to photograph most of his subjects—beautiful Vogue models (like his wife of 42 years, Lisa Fonssagrives, below) or these seriously covered Moroccan women.

Lisa Fonssagrives irving penn michele roohani long roses

This 1971 image of these three Rissani women buried in their hejab (body bag) is haunting; just looking at them oppresses me…

1971 irving penn rissani women micheleroohani oppression body bag

But it seems that Penn had an affinity for all sorts of veiled women like the spellbinding Jean Patchett in this picture from 1949:

jean pachett irving penn 1949 michele roohani blue veil

He’s been able to capture the absurdity of covering women from head to toe,

irving penn two guedras women get weary michele roohani

even though he’s known for photographing the most fashionable women in the world :

irving penn checkered dress michele roohani Lisa Fonssagrives black hat

His fashion images are iconic in their elegant simplicity:

Lisa Fonssagrives irving penn michele roohani black hat

and so are these other pictures of his:

cretan women 1964 irving penn michele roohani

He remains a keen observer of his subject, a quiet painter of his model, an attentive chronicler of his time—this is probably the most accurate picture of Colette at that age:

irving penn colette sido michele roohani

and the most natural portrait that I know of Simone de Beauvoir:

irving penn simone de beauvoir michele roohani

Sometimes they chose to cover their hair like Georgia O’Keeffe:

georgia o’keeffe poppies irving penn micheleroohani

Penn kept taking less serious pictures of yet other covered woman:

irving penn veiled women michleroohani ruffled hat

Throughout centuries, women have survived  ridiculous hats and oppressive veils and Irving Penn has been present to capture them all.

pink wine irving penn michele roohani

I finish with a quote from my favorite aesthete, Oscar Wilde : “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china”.

In Los Angeles, there is an exhibition of Irving Penn’s photographs at the Getty Museum.

A great article about Penn here.

A very scary Veiling dictionary (including Abaya—the one that looks like Belphégor) here.

3 thoughts on “Irving Penn and his women: from absurd to sublime

  1. Giants will never die. His images can haunt either for they darkness, fears, unbelievable, unacceptable realities, or and also for the legendary beauty and elegance.
    A great homage again.

  2. Hi Michele,

    I’d like to thank you for your emails, I enjoy your photography.

    The images about the covered ladies all in black was disturbing, I’d love to see some pictures that express faith from a different approach.

    I know the hijab is a believe it’s weather you have faith in it or not, and it has nothing to do with oppression or being covered from head to toe.

    It’s like going to the beach either a nude beach or a normal beach where you go dressed in bikini or bathing suit. the people who go to the nude beaches find the other ones over dressed. It’s question of choice really.

    Anyway i’d love to see some new pictures from you where you approach hijab in a more modern liberated and stylish way.

    thank you once again

  3. Thanks for giving us a Penn appetizer, enough for the curious to want to learn more.

    Sometimes I regret discovering a great woman/man only once they’ve departed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *