Irving Penn: The sorcerer who sought the truth behind the facade

Now in his 60s, Mikhail Baryshnikov, has embarked on a third career, as a photographer.

Ballet came first, then his acting years, then, from last year, he began to show his photographic work in art galleries.

Speaking with the press about ‘Dancing Away’, his exhibition in a London gallery late last year, Baryshnikov acknowledged that the great 20th century photographer, Irving Penn, was one of his main inspirations.

The photos of Penn and Baryshnikov have little in common yet there’s a dance bond between the two men. While Penn is best known for his fashion photos, his portraits of dancers (including Baryshnikov), of artists and actors are more illuminating and intimate, revealing so much more of his subjects than is possible within the commercial world of creating images that are, after all, designed to sell clothes.

Penn took the view that “sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. …Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe”.

For her obituary of Penn, published in The Guardian in October 2009, the writer Amanda Hopkinson recalled the time that the French writer, Colette, then 80, was photographed by Penn in 1951.

Colette’s husband, Maurice Goudeket, described Penn’s portrait: “He took a stupefying photograph. It discloses all that Colette wished to conceal and of which she was no doubt ignorant about herself. In reality it was the hidden person we all have in us. A great portraitist – they are very few – is a sort of sorcerer who sees beyond resemblance”.

Just look at Penn’s portraits of Picasso, Nureyev and Ingmar Bergman to see the sorcery at work.

The “hidden person” of his dance subjects were not so revelatory, yet there are insights that allow us to see more than we can in more conventional shots of his subjects, among them Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, George Balanchine, Maria Tallchief and Merrill Ashley as well as the 1940s stars of Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre).

Born in New Jersey in 1917, Penn first worked in an unpaid capacity for Harper’s Bazaar before he was commissioned to rethink the advertising strategy for the New York department store, Saks Fifth Avenue.

Soon after, he spent a year painting in Mexico, a time that he later claimed “gave him much of his insight into devising the starkness of lighting and simplicity of form that became two of his signal characteristics”, as Hopkinson wrote in her obituary.

Penn then became an assistant to Vogue’s art director, Alexander Liberman and his first work for the magazine was a still life of a glove, belt and purse, published on the cover of the October 1943 issue.

Penn’s 1980 book, Worlds in a Small Room, showed yet another aspect of his life and interests in a series of portraits taken during his travels through many countries, including Nepal, Cyprus, Morocco, Papua New Guinea and Cameroon.

The book included portraits of Hell’s Angels and hippies that Penn took in San Francisco in the 1960s “age of Aquarius”.

Penn was still working in 2006 (three years before his death), when he photographed the Australian model, Gemma Ward, for Vogue.

They are remarkably beautiful portraits and it’s even more remarkable that his sorcery was as evident then as it was in his 1964 portrait of another beauty, Audrey Hepburn.

Baryshnikov said he hoped his dance photos would allow the viewer “to see, to be able to imagine, the movement before and after, not just the frozen moment”.

Penn might have captured many a frozen moment, but in those moments we can imagine the movement within, just as we can sense the magical connection between the photographer and his subjects.

Scroll down for more images, including Colette, Gemma Ward, Audrey Hepburn, Penn’s first Vogue cover, Baryshnikov and a photo by Baryshnikov.

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Maria Tallchief and Balanchine, c 1947, photo © Irving Penn

Rudolf Nureyev, 1965, photo © Irving Penn

American Ballet Theatre, 1948, photo © Irving Penn, top row: Hugh Laing, John Krizia, Igor Youskevitch: second row: Muriel Bentley, Alicia Alonso, Antony Tudor, Oliver Smith, Dimitri Romonoff, Lucia Chase, Nora Kaye, Max Goberman

Picasso, 1957, photo © Irving Penn

Ingmar Bergman, 1964, photo © Irving Penn

Twelve beauties, Vogue 1947, photo © Irving Penn

An image from Baryshnikov’s photographic exhibition, Dancing Away, 2014

Audrey Hepburn, modelling Givenchy for Vogue, 1964, photo © Irving Penn

Vogue cover, October 1943, photo © Irving Penn

Baryshnikov, photo © Irving Penn

Colette, 1951, photo © Irving Penn

Gemma Ward, Vogue 2006, photo © Irving Penn