My recent visit to the Irving Penn exhibit "Assignment " at Pace McGill gallery in NY was a real shock. I expected to see Penn's famous Vogue photos of his wife Lisa, and his favorite model Jean Patchett and his colored still life's, but I certainly did not expect to see what was there when I opened the front door. I was frozen by three giant photos of open hands of the great Miles Davis at the entrance, blown up tenfold against a white wall.
Penn was known to capture the essence of who or what he shot, to simplify the subject down to the truth. There was the truth about Miles, right at the front door, right in front of me.
Miles had opened wide his palm for Penn. This was the hand that made the music we all fell in love with as Miles sounded like no other. Penn's had shot the tragedy. Miles heart line was riddled with islands, tragedy after tragedy. I knew him well and if you, like me believe in your palm telling your life story, it was there open wide at the door. There was more proof in Penn's photo of Miles tragedy as I never knew a man who got it so wrong. After his first marriage to his beloved wife, Frances, Miles romantically went down the tubes. The tragedy of his heart made his music sweeter.
Penn (as he was called by his friends and family) was quite the opposite. Penn found happiness in a "till death do us part" marriage to the world's most beautiful woman (circa1950) . Penn also found happiness in his work (another death do us part relationship), as Penn lived to work.
The exhibit with Pace was there to show the public what Penn could create on assignment to magazines like Vogue. He took reportage in 1950 to a new level, introducing stark contemporary art to a fashion magazine. His photos were still lifes of the world in 1950, a world where the very old (ancient Peruvian villagers), mixed with the world of the very new Truman Capote equally shot on dirty stools and dirty backgrounds on the pages of chic Vogue.
The man I met (when I met his daughter while we were fashion students at Parsons in NY) was the person more than any other artist who shaped how I focused when I worked designing.
Penn believed in peace and calm, no pretension, and a matter of fact simplicity to his creation. The only thing was the work and he worked non stop, day, night, weekends... and then he ate and slept. There were no charity balls, no Venetian balls, no trips to Africa (unless he was photo graphing tribesman), no socializing except for eating simple, great food on white plates in a simple NY apartment across the street from Bloomingdales in a nondescript building, and in a simple country home on Long Island , small and sweet with small rustic rooms that he could relax in to be able to work nonstop in his dark room. Guests were not permitted in either home, hanging out drinking champagne was not an option for friends and assistants and some how I lucked out as his daughters school friend to actually go upstairs and walk from room to room to see the photos he chose to hang on his spare walls. Nobody went upstairs.
Later when Mia and I went to Paris in 1964 and Penn came to shoot the French collections, we got to see him work at night after the couture collections and we met Diana Vreeland and heard her take on Penn.
Of course the talk was about the quiet that he evoked and the monastic simplicity, as she was the opposite and chatted nonstop. The few shots he took in the studio after long set ups in silence to position the lights were almost Church-like in tone, where a higher power would determine the geste and Penn thanked God and snapped it.
A funny coincidence happened in 1965. I was in Hollywood doing a movie and was invited to visit the Arthur Penn set of "The Chase" on a night shoot behind MGM. I was not surprised to hear the identical silence and simplicity of the younger brother Penn.
How did their mama and papa get them both to learn such concentration? That was to be my goal, to forget everything but the work. Be Like Penn.
Vicky Tiel began designing clothes 40 years ago in Paris and still owns a boutique there. See Vicky and her new collection on HSN and online. Her couture is available at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, and her perfumes are carried in Perfumania. Her memoir, It's All About the Dress: What I Learned in 40 Years About Men, Women, Sex and Fashion was published by St. Martin's Press in August 2011.