Living Flowers

“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

In his long working life – from 1943 most of it spent at Vogue – Irving Penn pursued a version of photographic truth which filtered through all his areas of interest. And these were many and varied. Portraits, fashion and beauty photographs for Vogue, certainly, but he made significant bodies of work in other areas, some connected, some less so: nudes, sculptural and statuesque; still-life studies of street detritus, of which his close-ups of discarded cigarette ends are perhaps the best known; and a radical series made in 1950 in Paris, London and New York of les petit métiers, those often itinerant skilled tradesmen such as knife grinders, onion sellers and coal men whose presence in daily life was all but disappearing even then.

His flower studies are the focus of a joint exhibition (with Richard Learoyd) at Hamiltons London, on show until September. Penn had collected them together for a book, published in 1980 and titled, with Penn-like economy, Flowers, but they have slipped slightly from view over the past 40 years. The first edition of Flowers is now one of the most elusive of all Penn’s books, “as rare as camellias in July”, as Charles Gandee observed in Vogue in 1996.

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