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Exclusive Interview w/ Photography Curator & Historian Colin Westerbeck on Irving Penn

irving penn dispatch final

American master photographer Irving Penn was a protean force in fashion photography from the 1940s all the way into the 21st century.  He photographed both of these iconic images.  High Low Vintage recently spoke with Photography Curator & Historian Colin Westerbeck who offered his insights on why these two very different photographs represent the two poles of what Irving Penn was all about.


For me, the signal picture from the ‘Flying Down to Lima‘ fashion shoot is the often reproduced one of Jean Patchett sitting at a cabaret table in a distrait state, paying no attention to the faceless man next to her, chewing on her pearls w/ one shoe half off as if her feet hurt. The dress is absolutely perfect, fresh from the cleaner, but the girl is wilted. That’s what Penn was doing that was unprecedented: treating the models in the clothes as real, live women whose feet sometimes hurt. The gelatin-silver (b&w) prints were appropriate to that neo-realist view of life as experience lived rather than idealized.


The flip side of that picture of Patchett is one he took of his wife Lisa Fonssagrives the following year in a “Harlequin dress”. The model’s attitude in that one is the opposite of Patchett’s; Lisa looks directly at the camera in a way that would freeze the heart of anyone looking back at her. But the incredible window-pane checked dress is one she & Irving bought off a remainder rack on a sidewalk on the Lower East Side during a Saturday afternoon junket. In the Patchett picture, the woman is beat; in the Fonssagrives, the dress is a piece of junk w/ puckered seams. The two pictures are the two sides of the same coin that Irving earned recreating the idea of “fashion.”


Mr. Westerbeck brought the Penn archives to the Art Institute of Chicago…one of the largest collections of his photography anywhere. He has written the definitive book on Irving Penn, IRVING PENN: A CAREER IN PHOTOGRAPHY. His newest book, CHUCK CLOSE: PHOTOGRAPHER, will be released this November.