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Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949-50 Hardcover – February, 2002
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About the Author
Irving Penn's books include Moments Preserved (1960), Worlds in a Small Room (1974), Inventive Paris Clothes 1909-1939 (1977), Flowers (1980), Passage (1991), and Still Life (2001). A retrospective of his work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984. In 1997, the Art Institute of Chicago mounted a traveling international exhibition.
Maria Morris Hambourg is the Curator of Photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the author of numerous books on photography.
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It is still possible to miss the point of this book. Fanning the pages looking for what passes for beautiful bodies these days will tell you more about yourself than the artist.
This work will startle some people who know only Penn's famous portraits and fashion photographs. These are primitive, direct and pure essence of the subject, counterpoint to his highly refined public work. Penn uses the power of the raw photograph with great self-assurance to discover detail in otherwise very simple images. Some of his pictures seem unfinished, but the author makes it clear there are no accidents in these prints - they are as carefully done as his familiar published work.
Some images deliberately recall sculpture from Venus de Milo and Nike of Samothrace to the female scuptures from prehistoric caves. Some images draw on Stieglitz, Weston, and perhaps Bernhard. A lesser artist would just seem derivative but the few references to others simply reinforce the strength of Penn's own vision.
Hambourg shows us by her editing just how Penn worked. She includes one contact sheet that invokes the closeness of the "dance" between artist and model that most never see and photographers seldom want to show. Hambourg's deft touch greatly enriches this book without distracting from the artist.
Penn's nude photographs ranks with the nudes of Weston and only one or two others. It is a curious coincidence that the nudes of Weston, Stieglitz and Penn were all conserved and presented to us by women. That is sufficient reason to pay attention to how this work is presented.
One page into the main collection of photos (p.24), we see a figure with uncommonly slender bust, a tummy sensually rounded, and hip and thigh that widen in lush curves. This directly contradicts today's "fashionable" figure in nearly every way, but remains one of the most striking, beautiful, and essentially womanly portraints in the collection. If you can't love that photo, then just close the book. You won't grasp the respect for honesty above passing style that pervades this anthology. In particular, you won't value the gifts of softness that come to a woman in her thirties, or forties, or later.
After that second page, nearly every image presents some awkward angle, some crease where fleshy curve crumples under the strength within it, or some aspect of womanly softness yielding to gravity. These features have appeared on the women I've loved, and appear more often as they mature. I love all of those features for that reason. They do not detract from a woman's beauty, unless you use some twenty-something centerfold model as standard. Instead, they present it as it has appeared in my life. I know that many viewers will not understand the shocking beauty of the ordinary. I pity those impoverished souls, and wish better vision for them as the women in their lives continue to mature.