The Making of an Image: Irving Penn’s Cuzco Children

Our October 17 sale of Classic & Contemporary Photographs features an impressive selection of portraiture from the last two centuries. The most significant is Irving Penn’s platinum-palladium print, Cuzco Children, 1960, printed 1978. Here Daile Kaplan, the house’s Vice President and Director of Photographs & Photobooks, touches on Penn’s practice and the making of the image.

Irving Penn, Cuzco Children, Peru, December, platinum-palladium print of a little boy and girl standing holding hands across a table, 1948.
Irving Penn, Cuzco Children, Peru, December, platinum-palladium print, 1948, printed 1978.
Estimate $80,000 to $120,000.

Irving Penn in Peru

After finishing a fashion shoot for Vogue magazine in Peru, Irving Penn set off for Cuzco, the ancient Incan capital, where he rented the studio of a local photographer. Penn worked during the Christmas holidays, a time when indigenous peoples traveled to the city to sell their crafts and wares. He wrote, “When subjects arrived to be photographed they found me instead of [the proprietor]. Instead of them paying me, I paid them for posing, a very confusing affair.”

Irving Penn, Father and Son, Cuzco, silver print, 1948. Sold April 19, 2016 for $5,200.

Peruvian photographer Martín Chambi features in the October 17 sale.

Penn’s commercial and editorial assignments for Condé Nast, for whom he shot celebrities, cultural icons and fashion models in studio settings, reflected the work of a consummate professional. It is perhaps unsurprising that, in his personal work, Penn sought a more natural, free approach that resulted in an artistic style all his own.

Cuzco Children

In his intimate study entitled Cuzco Children (pictured at top), Penn captured the pair of children as they arrived—barefoot, dressed in tattered clothing and floppy hats in the local style. With hands clasped, their serious countenances, simultaneously innocent and knowing, childlike and mature, they convey a gravitas that belies their ages. The subjects are posed before a simple canvas backdrop, bathed in an ethereal soft light offset by the solidity of the wet stone floor.

Irving Penn, Cuzco Children, Cuzco, black and white silver print of a little boy and girl with the little girl sitting on a table, 1948.
Irving Penn, Cuzco Children, Cuzco, silver print, 1948, printed 1949. Sold October 17, 2013 for $40,000.

During a hectic three-days in Cuzco, Penn shot an astonishing 2,000 negatives, including multiple images of the children represented in this particular portrait. The following year, 1949, Vogue published 11 of his artistic portraits.

Irving Penn in the Darkroom

Decades later, Penn revisited the negative and printed enlargements, including this ravishing platinum palladium photographic print in 1978. This specialized technique required considerable care, time and expense. The photographic paper was handcoated, multiple times, with platinum and palladium. The photo emulsion was exposed to light and processed in an analog darkroom. Due to the carefully applied hand coating, each print is different from the previous iteration. 

For more in our October 17 sale, browse the full catalogue, or download the Swann Galleries App.