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‘For Me, Flowers Are Acts of God’: A New London Exhibition Celebrates Irving Penn’s Spectacular Floral Portraits

‘For Me, Flowers Are Acts of God’: A New London Exhibition Celebrates Irving Penn’s Spectacular Floral Portraits

Penn’s work reached an early apotheosis within the ’40s and ’50s, these post-war years which W. H. Auden termed the “Age of Nervousness,” and Penn’s eye was correspondingly exacting, nearly existentialist. By inserting his topics in isolation in opposition to a plain grey painted backdrop or a size of black carpet, granular and dust-flecked, he got here as near the reality as he might, and in essentially the most direct of phrases. “The photographic course of for me,” he as soon as defined, “is primarily simplification and elimination.”

Although he would solely begin on them in earnest in 1967, his flower photos have been no exception. Like a taxonomist figuring out a uncommon and unique species, his rigorous commentary allowed his viewers to see a rose as a rose however from a unique approach, a contemporary and explicit viewpoint—a Penn portrait, maybe.

American Vogue commissioned 9 annual portfolios of images devoted to at least one flower. These have been a Christmas present to readers, printed every December till 1975 (although the holding picture of that remaining yr’s survey, a dandelion, was, for those who have been horticulturally inclined, extra of a weed).

The inaugural characteristic was “Lust for Tulips,” a range photographed in Penn’s Fifth Avenue penthouse studio. On “Cottage Tulip (Sorbet),” the drops of water (in all probability used to refresh the bloom below the glare of Penn’s studio lamps) catch the sunshine, the pinnacle itself having remodeled itself right into a fizzing, popping explosion of coloration. Elevating images to the extent of portray was Penn’s lifelong motivation, and, in the long run, one in every of his biggest achievements.

Poppies have been subsequent for 1968. A set-up of oriental poppies, three in a line, have been starting to lose their petals—one, actually, fully denuded and sheltering behind its neighbor like a vogue mannequin in lesser palms abruptly caught unawares within the highlight. Peonies, orchids, roses, lilies, and begonias adopted yr on yr, genus on genus…

Penn’s strategy was dispassionate. He didn’t search magnificence for magnificence’s sake, because the steadily disintegrating trio of poppies may attest. “I can declare no particular data,” he wrote within the introduction to Flowers, “that the reader may consider he has a proper to anticipate of somebody making a ebook about flowers.” He added that his enjoyment of such ignorance allowed him to take pleasure in type and coloration and to stay unimpeded by issues of rarity, or, as he put it, “tied to the conference {that a} flower have to be photographed at its second of unblemished and nubile perfection.”

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