Irving Penn's most recent book, A Notebook at Random (Bulfinch, 2004), takes us on a totally engaging journey through his life as an artist, and reveals his extraordinary range of creativity and talent. A Notebook at Random is very much about Penn's process of creation; the book itself, which is brilliantly designed and produced, is a reflection of his understanding of perfection, as it is an extension of his work.
Penn's work is immediately recognizable - whether it's a portrait, a still life in the studio, a photograph of a found object lying in the street, or A Notebook at Random itself. His attention to detail, his flawless technique, and his original and ever‑changing use of light are all adjunct to his powerful understanding and translation of the content in his images. His photographs go far beyond what we see on the surface. He is a poet and a humanist.
Penn's images are precise and visually alluring, and yet there is always an edge of either humor or strangeness to them. An example of this irony is seen in the platinum print of Kate Moss, nude. It is a portrait of a sensual woman, more voluptuous than we expect. Only her distinct bony, protruding spine reminds us that she is Kate Moss, the waif.
A number of Penn's most famous portraits are in this volume. Some are the iconic images themselves (such as his 1951 portrait of Colette); others are alternate frames from the sittings that produced familiar photographs (such as his 1948 picture of Balthus). Penn has also taken a few of his well‑known images and reinvented a way for us to see them, creating a new and powerful image - for example, the full‑figure portrait of John Marin (1947) is here cropped to only his head, and shown as a pigment print from a platinum test fragment, with pieces of tape still visible (2003). These fragments are remarkable; Penn has the gift to see the splendor in a test strip - something that might normally be discarded.
The book also reveals another of Penn's talents: an unsurpassed gift for drawing and painting. He has perfect command of line and a wonderful sense of color and design. In some instances, his drawings and paintings are part of his photographic process - such as the sketch that preceded Sweetie (2002), a witty still life photograph of a woman's face masked with fruits and candies that compose her features. Although the drawing was a tool in the process, it still stands alone. Other drawings and paintings seem to have been created totally independently of Penn's photographic life, such as the drawing Large Figure (1950), and The Saber Dancer (2000), a combination of platinum, watercolor, and sand on paper, mounted on aluminum.
There are very few artists with the ability to work in so many different genres with such originality and perfection. Penn never repeats himself. He is constantly rediscovering the world. He is obviously a man who loves being alive and is fascinated by everything around him. His work is whimsical, beautiful, and always profound.
When I started taking pictures in 1963, Penn's book Moments Preserved (Simon and Schuster, 1960) was a revelation to me. Over the years, I have continued to be moved and inspired by his work: I own all of his books and a few prints, and I faithfully buy Vogue magazine every month to look at his new images. I thought I knew all of his work, but A Notebook at Random opened up a whole other side of Penn's world to me. And Penn's artistic journey, as seen in A Notebook at Random, is likely to inspire and enlighten many more artists as they follow their own creative paths.
‑Mary Ellen Mark