He Was the Scheherazade of Our Time

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Last month, at the opening of the Irving Penn exhibition at the Getty Center, the celebrated 92 year-old photographer was not in attendance. We were told that he hates to fly, which shouldn't come as a surprise, considering his age. Though his exhibition of 210 black and white photographs is still on view at the museum, the artist himself is no more; last week brought the sad news of the death of Irving Penn, one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century.

at091013a.jpgEven at the beginning of his career, with its focus on fashion, Penn clearly aimed to do more than show off his technical virtuosity, creating complex and powerful images that generously reward close examination. In one of his early iconic photographs from 1951, Woman in Moroccan Palace, we see his wife, the stunning model Lisa Fonssagrives, wrapped in a blanket, white towel turban on her head; she sits on the floor in front of a low table with a tea service and turns toward us, as if asking, "Ready to hear a story?" I always think of this image as a 20th century reincarnation of Scheherazade, and of Irving Penn himself as the consummate storyteller, who left us with his photographic version of the Thousand and One Nights.

at091013b.jpgHis portrait of the young Truman Capote – contorted and squeezed into a tight corner of the studio – is truly an image worth a thousand words. Childlike and vulnerable, but at the same time somewhat menacing, Capote begs for attention while keeping us at arm's length.

at091013c.jpgThe portrait of opera diva Jessye Norman shows her at the height of her career, at a recital when she is giving her all; her eyes are closed, and you'd swear that you can hear the trumpet of the high 'C' originating deep within her body, and now pouring out of her wide open mouth. I always feel that in his best portraits, Irving Penn allowed people to be completely true to themselves, capturing with his camera their very essence.

at091013d.jpgA number of well-known photographers have tried to emulate the glamour and style of Penn's images – among them, the ubiquitous Annie Leibovitz, without whom Vanity Fair would never have reached such heights. But look at her superb portrait of Mikhail Baryshnikov balancing on top of a grand piano, with an attractive woman in a swimsuit and sunglasses at its keyboard. The whole scene is elaborately staged not in the studio, but outdoors, in the meadow of a dense forest. Here's an example of the photographer effectively manipulating her subject and cajoling him into telling a story totally scripted by her. The resulting image, while striking, is emotionally detached, bearing degrees of separation that make you especially appreciate the insightfulness and intimacy of Irving Penn's portraits.

at091013e.jpgI have to admit that it's probably silly of me to think of renowned still life painter Wayne Thiebaud as a portraitist of delectable things; slices of cake or wedges of watermelon, as painted by him, have the presence of classically trained actors delivering their soliloquies. His vertiginous street scenes of San Francisco seduce viewers into following him on an operatic roller-coaster ride through the city. It was a delight to discover that the 91 year-old artist has an irrepressible sense of humor in real life as well, which he demonstrated during a talk at the recent opening of his exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. I am pretty sure that this exhibition will leave a lingering sweet taste in your mouth.

Wayne Thiebaud: 70 Years of Painting
On view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through January 31

Banner image: Wayne Thiebaud's Watermelon Slices, 1961, oil on canvas, Private Collection; detail of Three Prone Figures, 1961, oil on canvas, Collection of Paul LeBaron Thiebaud Art © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York