Irving Penn’s photograph of a wilting poppy captures the flower in microscopic detail. His photograph depicts the individual hairs on the flower’s stem, and the lines and veins that thread through its petals. The petal is treated almost as if it is a flowing gown from one of Penn’s fashion photographs. The folds in the petal are depicted with such detail that we gain a sense of the flower’s structural form, and printed in such high quality the texture of the petal has a silken quality to it.
In 1967, Alexander Liberman, editor-in-chief at American Vogue, commissioned Penn to photograph a series of flowers which would feature in the magazine’s December issue. The series focused on various specimens of tulips and proved so successful that Penn went on to produce a series of flower still lifes for the magazine’s December issues for the next few years. His series focusing on poppies was his second, made in 1968. Penn’s approach to the subject matter eschewed the traditional sentimentality inherent in photographs of flowers and instead sought to emphasise the formal and structural qualities of the flowers, along with their textures and anatomical functions. His poppy pictures portray the fragility of the flower, as the stem and petals wilt. Penn’s still lifes, which he produced throughout his career beginning in the 1930s, often hinted at the impending prospect of death. He often included memento mori within his still lifes. In this instance, the poppy itself imbues the photograph with a darker tone with its associations of death.
Penn has said of his flowers series “I can claim no special knowledge of horticulture… I even confess to enjoying that ignorance since it has left me free to react with simple pleasure just to form and colour, without being diverted by considerations of rarity or tied to the convention that a flower must be photographed at its moment of unblemished, nubile perfection.” Penn’s work culminated in the publishing of all five of his flower series in a book in 1980
(By Alexandra MacKay)