Inside a Marrakech Palace: Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn by Irving Penn

Taken in 1951 this photograph shows Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, the photographer’s wife and model, enjoying tea at the La Bahia Palace in Marrakech. The image was commissioned by Vogue, and is one out of hundreds that Penn would produce for the magazine throughout his career. His post-war fashion photography for the magazine has arguably become his most recognised body of work, producing 165 covers for Vogue over the years, Alexander Liberman of Vogue described his photographs as ‘stoppers’ for their ability to arrest the viewer and get under their skin.

In this portrait Fonssagrives-Penn is photographed draped in a long robe and wearing a headscarf as she stares down the lens of the camera with an expression of annoyance across her face. Though her expression is striking, Penn’s composition remains balanced, with each element of the composition receiving equal attention. Using the natural outdoor light of the setting Penn highlights the movement of the robe as it wraps around and gives form to the model’s body. Unlike Penn’s studio portraits, which were often shot against a simple grey background, in this photograph he includes all the architectural splendour of the palace. Penn organises his composition with almost arithmetical order, using the decorative background to offset the simple robes the model wears.

Penn’s fashion photography often sought to present an idea of femininity and style, rather than offer a clear image of the clothes themselves. His photographs emphasise silhouettes and draped fabric mixed with dark tones resulting in images that blur the boundaries between fashion and art. Penn’s career, which spanned over six decades, produced a body of work which displays Penn’s breadth of interest and ability to work across several genres of the photographic medium.

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