Sights of the Sixties: Irving Penn’s Woman with Sunblock

Irving Penn spent 66 of his 92 years working with Vogue magazine. Visionary art director, Alexander Liberman, hired the young photographer in 1943. Liberman described Penn’s photographs as ‘stoppers’ for their striking visual impact as well as their ability to arrest the viewer. Describing Penn’s early contributions to the magazine, Liberman stated, ‘these images were so new, so divorced from current imaginative traditions, that they were a revelation.’

Penn’s distinct aesthetic was one of balanced and elegant compositions, rendered with a strong graphic precision. In the 1960s, he used a pure white background to dramatic effect, later stating, ‘I began to photograph girls in the studio against seamless white paper. Isolating a model against a simple white background was a minor revolution’. Penn would photograph his models against these sparse backdrops, in order to distil his compositions to their essential essence, and focus entirely on form, shape and line.

In Vogue’s beauty pages, Penn was given creative freedom to push his aesthetic even further. He produced intricate and innovative images that illustrated concepts relating to beauty products or cosmetics. Woman with Sunblock, made for Vogue in 1966, is an exquisite example of his beauty work for the magazine, and a perfect expression of sixties modernity. To accompany an article entitled ‘Beauty and Science Fact’, Penn employed a bold and graphic composition with a tight crop to underline the subject’s high-concept design. He brings the composition to life with the subtlest touch of wit, with the inclusion of the sunblock-smeared nose, contrasted against the clean lines of the radically designed, futuristic visor.

Penn was a fastidious and an enthusiastic print maker, a fact reflected in the diversity of mediums that he worked with throughout his career. The present photograph is a dye transfer print, a printing method that Penn preferred over all other colour print methods, as it provided greater control in the printing process and was capable of rendering a superior tonal quality and range. The dye transfer is a time consuming and exacting process that is incredibly labour intensive, akin to offset printing in its methodology. Dye transfer prints are valued by collectors and institutions alike for their archival qualities. The durability and stability of the prints means that they retain their intense depth of colour and tonal richness.

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