Dazzle by the Dozen

A 1947 portrait by the renowned Irving Penn broke the fashion mold and celebrated an elegance all too rare today

Irving Penn, now in his 80s and still hard at work, is considered one of America's greatest living photographers. He has set an unsurpassed standard for still life and portraiture and has been a powerful, creative force in fashion photography since just after World War II. Today, according to Kimberly Jones of the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York City, certain Penn prints sell for more than $100,000.

In 1947, Penn was 30 years old and had already worked for the legendary Russian art director Alexey Brodovitch, designed advertising for Saks Fifth Avenue, spent a year painting in Mexico, helped create Vogue covers as an assistant to Alexander Liberman, and made photographs while serving as a wartime ambulance driver in Italy and India. One winter day in a studio in Manhattan, however, Penn faced a formidable challenge. Assembled for an unprecedented group portrait were 12 of the most famous models of the era. The mere idea of gathering this dazzling dozen in a single room may have seemed to Penn a reckless act. Each of the models was accustomed to being the focus of attention and to posing for the best-known fashion photographers of the time, Europeans like Horst P. Horst and George Hoyningen-Huene or New Yorkers such as John Rawlings. Though Penn was an up-and-coming talent, he was still a young man from Plainfield, New Jersey, so it's easy to imagine that some of the divas might have—ever so charmingly—looked down their perfect noses at him.

Penn had a powerful ally: art. From his earliest efforts with the camera, he had embraced classic traditions. In his photographs for Vogue, he carried on the formal values and impeccable chiaroscuro lighting of master painters as varied as Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Goya, de Chirico and Balthus. Nevertheless, given the magnetic fields of the stars in his galaxy that day, Penn's task was akin to Zeus struggling to establish order in the heavens.

Of course, this gathering had a practical editorial purpose. As French designers like Christian Dior reinvented high fashion, and postwar Paris rose again to its position of fashion hegemony, Vogue waxed patriotic and dressed its most famous models in the designs of Americans, including Henri Bendel and Nettie Rosenstein. Anyone familiar with today's fashion magazines will instantly note what seems different about this picture: the models are women, not girls, and they look entirely at home in these extraordinary clothes. For instance, Lily Carlson, wearing the white gown in the center of the picture, was 32 at the time, and Lisa Fonssagrives (who would marry Penn in 1950 and remain his wife until her death in 1992), seen in profile just to the left of Carlson, was 35. John Szarkowski, now director emeritus of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, later wrote that fashion then still represented "an exceptional and precious variety of art object that privileged women might wear—might inhabit—as a badge of their station, wealth, and taste." And to inhabit such fashion required an assurance that went beyond looks. These were individualistic women with the kind of presence that made their first-magnitude beauty secondary, even in a fashion photograph. Many of the women went on to excel in other fields. Lisa Fonssagrives became a successful sculptor represented by the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan. Lily Carlson, who died in 2000, became a photographer herself; her work appeared in such magazines as Life and Look. And Dorian Leigh, reclining in the foreground, opened a restaurant in Paris, then returned to the States to write about food.

Penn, always very private, no longer talks about the making of this portrait. Most of the women in the picture have died, and he says thinking about that long-ago day is painful. But some years ago, he described to me the rigors of the sitting. Penn is famous for controlling every aspect of his pictures. If there is a bee on a lemon in a still life, you can be sure Penn put it there. These models, however, were lens veterans who knew how best to show off their profitable bone structure. Thus a struggle was perhaps inevitable. In what he has called "the sweetness and constancy" of the light in the skylit studio, Penn carefully adjusted a dozen poses to create a precise visual point-counterpoint, then ducked under the cloth of his large view camera. But as he studied the image in the ground glass, he saw elegant heads turning back to positions their owners knew to be flattering. Time after time, Penn came from behind the camera to set things right, until, by dint of will power or stamina, he carried the day.

The influence of great painters is clear in the result, but Penn's ironic inclusion of beat-up stepladders, a clump of scruffy carpet and a wad of crumpled wrapping paper places the picture in the modern tradition. As a complex, endlessly unfolding composition and a masterwork of lighting, 12 Beauties is fashion iconography at its best. Like many great photographs, it captures the passionate spirit of an era. We see with undiminished clarity a time when optimism was in ascendancy, poise was power and glamour still had gravitas.

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