Penn and Beller

Irving Penn is associated with fine photographs of fashionable women. An innovative artist and master technician, Penn recognized that editorial photography was but one form of representation and moved effortlessly between the worlds of commerce and art. His photographs were collected and exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in 1943, the same year he started working at Vogue magazine. Penn’s sophisticated aesthetic sensibility and apparent affinity with individuals from all walks of life resulted in a distinct body of both fine art portraits and nude studies. Swann is pleased to offer three examples of his nudes in our December 9th Important Photographs & Photobooks auction.


In his series Dancer, a result of his collaboration with choreographer, dancer and model Alexandra Beller, Penn demonstrates the dynamic relationship between photographer and subject. Beller recounted of the shoot:


“Having never modeled nude before, the first session was an anxious and uncomfortable event. Penn’s gaze made this both more and less relaxing. His respect, his integrity, his incredible calm were, of course, sources of relief to me. His intensity of focus, however, was like an X-ray, so any comfort gained by my superficial body evaporated quickly in the soul-searching depth of his eyes. His eyes were like no other that I have seen; keen does not begin to cover it. More…

I believe, from watching him watch, that his sense of sight was simply different from ours. He would just watch me, allowing me to dance, saying only one of the two words he generally spoke to me: “Slower.” I would continue to dance, slower. Then I would hear “stop.” And I would stop. So, dancing, painfully slowly, and stopping, we would find a place to begin. Once I had stopped in a place, a shape, the architecture of a picture, he would give me tiny bits of information: “Look up,” “pull your right shoulder back,” “Straighten you left leg.” Those tiny bits of direction yielded enormous resonance for me. I would feel as if a curtain had parted, the emotional moment we were seeking. The vessel would fill with life. The look upwards, the opening of the shoulder revealed desire, surrender, fear, rebellion, authority, flirtation. 


Having trained my body for so long to sense both the past and the present through the skeleton, the muscles, the organs, the skin, his directions were like lasers, carving out evocative emotional pictures from the neutral self.” 

Top: Irving Penn, Alexandra Beller, New York, from the Dancer series, selenium-toned silver print, 1999; printed 2000. Estimate: $18,000 to $22,000. Bottom: Penn, Alexandra Beller, New York, from the Dancer series, selenium-toned silver print, 1999; printed 2000. Estimate: $7,000 to $10,000.