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Fashion Insider Anne Slowey on the "Monastic" Experience of Working in Irving Penn's Studio

In celebration of Pace Gallery's exhibition "Irving Penn: Paintings," on view through Oct. 13.

Installation view of "Irving Penn: Paintings" (Photo: Courtesy Pace Gallery © The Irving Penn Foundation)

In celebration of Pace Gallery’s current exhibitions, Surface spoke with the mentees of photography masters whose works are on view. “Irving Penn: Paintings” is on view at Pace Gallery through Oct. 13.

The name Irving Penn brings to mind iconic, magical imagery—mostly as it relates to fashion and beauty. But Penn actually made his foray into artistry as a painter; the medium would bookend the beginning and end of his career.

Where Penn’s photography depicts “magical moments”—ones in which fastidious planning and austerity would culminate in a perfect image—stylistically speaking, his paintings couldn’t stray further in the opposite direction. Pace Gallery is currently celebrating the artist’s lesser-known work in the medium with its exhibition “Irving Penn: Paintings,” which displays paintings from his later years.

In the 1980s, Anne Slowey had the good fortune of being assigned to Penn’s studio via her first fashion job at Vogue, which happened to be during the height of Penn’s contributions to the glossy. Some 30 years and a lifetime of perspective later, Surface asked Slowey to reflect on the year she spent working alongside Penn in his studio.

Irving Penn, "The Alchemist," New York, 2005 inkjet print and watercolor on paper mounted to aluminum overall, 24 3/4 X 19 7/8 inches (Photo: Courtesy © The Irving Penn Foundation).

You worked with Penn for about a year. I would love if you could give some color to the experience and describe what the studio was like, what the energy was like, and what your working relationship was like.

I obviously was very well aware of his work as an artist, and so naturally, just the fact that I would find myself—this kid from Indiana—in a studio with such a renowned artist was mind-blowing to me. And what I noticed right off the bat, he’s very ordered. He’s very controlled. The environment was very controlled. It was very white, and it was very pristine, it was very clean. He had only guys working for him. There weren’t any women working for him, except for the models, and obviously Andrea and myself.

My job as Andrea’s assistant was to be the first person there representing Vogue, and I would do everything from unpacking the clothes to receiving and signing for the catering, and so I got to know his assistants very well. One of my first days there, Yasmin Le Bon was supposed to be there, and she didn’t show up. Somebody called and was getting nowhere with the modeling agency.

Somehow, I ended up with her phone number. I’m not exactly sure. I might have gotten it from the bookings editor at Vogue, but I remember that … it might have been my first day in the studio, actually, and I was like, “I’ll call her.” You know, that kind of Midwestern can-do [attitude], and I just picked up the phone. I remember she clearly she said she had the cramps, but probably was hung over, and at least I assumed she was hung over.

I don’t know if “charmed” him was the right word, but I think he was bemused because I sort of scolded her, and was like … “I don’t care if you’re dead. You need to be in the studio now!” And of course, she didn’t come in, because she wasn’t feeling well, but anyway, I think he got a kick out of me.

I remember one of the other things he said to me right off the bat … I’m not a gum chewer, and I remember one of the first times I was in the studio, somebody had some gum, and I ended up with some gum in my mouth, and I must have been manically chewing this gum, because he was just staring at me for a while. Then finally, he just said in a very composed fashion, he’s like, “Do you always chew your gum so frantically?”

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Irving Penn, "Still Life with Skull, Bottle, and Sewing Machine," New York, 2005 inkjet print with watercolor and sand on paper mounted to aluminum overall, 16 1/4 x 22 1/8 inches (Photo: Courtesy © The Irving Penn Foundation)

Stop it.

I was like, “Oh my God! I don’t even … I never even chew gum!” So, I think I provided him with a lot of comic relief, which I don’t know … everyone in his studio said that he adored me, because I made him laugh. Eventually, he let me on his set, and I got to assist in creating, I don’t know, moments with Andrea; obviously, she was the stylist. I just felt so lucky. Here I was, I came out of the Midwest, I knew nothing, and suddenly, I was in probably one of the most rarefied places I could find myself, looking at the most beautiful objects, the best that the world had to offer. And then I got to watch this artist at work, as he went through his process of composing an image, not just with all these beautiful items that would come down from Vogue at 350 Madison, but also we were working at the time with all the supermodels, so it was a revolving door of Christy, Cindy, Linda…I can remember at one point, I was taking off Christy Turlington’s pantyhose, as you are wont to do when you are a stylist at the shoot.

Sure.

She was standing in front of the mirror, reading a letter that Dovima had sent her, about how she was the next Dovima, you know, the most significant model to come along in a long time. I just remember standing up, and I’d always considered myself to be somewhat reasonably good looking, but then I was like, I looked at Christy, I looked at myself, and I’m like, “Oh my God! What a reality check.” But, you know these were the days when people … I remember, I think Christy made the cover of Time, as the face of the future, and people considered her exotic at the time.

Wow.

Which is such an un-P.C. word now, but she definitely was ethnic. But, you know, the environment was very quiet. There wasn’t any music going on. His assistants knew exactly what to do. He barely uttered a word; it was precision timing on everything, but when it came time to dealing with the models, he wasn’t a hard, harsh person. He was very gentle and very soft-spoken, and you could tell that he loved working with the models, was very sweet to all of them. But it felt like a fine-art experience. It did not, in any way, feel like a fashion shoot experience at all. He was applying his critical eye to everything, and the discussion was always about composition. It wasn’t like he was taking a million photos, he would really just kind of create this special moment, this sort of magical vortex that everyone in the studio would fall into; while he was speaking to the model and she was responding and everybody was watching and it was captivating—it wasn’t tense in a bad way, I mean there was a good kind of tension there, and we were all mesmerized and we were just waiting for him and then, you could almost feel the moment when you know everybody would almost take a collective gasp because we we would all kind of realize at the same time when the model would just create this—I don’t know, just this perfect expression or gesture and then you’d hear the click, you know it was the sound of the click of his camera was just so magnified, and we’d spend hours, hours working on a shoot, I mean sometimes we only did two shots a day.

Whoa!

Or three, we’d do three. The entire experience was just very composed; I was probably the least composed person in there, but I learned so much from watching him work about what makes a great photo, great picture, and what also what’s so special about fashion, that when it can transcend the everyday into something iconic and profound and meaningful, and I think everybody, everybody was feeling that from working with him. 

Irving Penn, "A Worn Shoe," 2005 inkjet print with watercolor, sand and gum arabic on paper mounted to aluminum overall, 20 1/4 x 16 1/4 inches (Photo: Courtesy © The Irving Penn Foundation)

I recall you saying he sketched prior to shooting as well.

The sketching would take place prior to, a week or two prior we’d go down and have a meeting, Andrea and I were—I take no credit for anything—but, you know we’d sit around and sort of just you know hash through the reasons for the shoot or the kind of essences, and nuances, and why this and why now, and we’d go down and present to him with Polaroids of some of the objects. A lot of these things we would have specially made based upon the meeting that we would have with him, and he would start sketching, and they would discuss you know color and form, and it was the ’80s, so accessories were having a heyday. It was a great time to be working with a lot of these young designers in New York, who would turn on a dime and create whatever he was looking for, and that was sort of our job then was to interpret.

He would give us these brushstrokes, if you will, of shape and color and sort of feeling and then I had the good fortune to go back and work with a lot of designers to create hats, create jewelry, within days, hours—sometimes the day—of the shoot. Our shoots would usually last three days, so sometimes we’d be out on set and he’d have an idea, we’d get on the phone, and we’d have something made exclusively made for the next day. But yes he sketched, he would sketch everything, and they were sort of abstract sketches, they were like loose-handed geometric shapes filling a frame, and he would do, say we have eight pages, he would kind of sketch out what the entire eight pages would look like and feel like—and that’s not to say that things didn’t change on set; they always did it was—but it was part of his process and part of the conversation of how to approach the subject matter.

I saw one of his retrospectives at the National Gallery of Art when I was in school, and that was the first time I was really exposed to the rest of work outside of fashion and beauty. I noticed he kind of had a fixation of sorts with photographing things in decay, like overripe cheese and worn-out shoes, which is just so different from the fashion work and beauty work he’s best known for. I’m wondering if he ever talked about or alluded to this disconnect because I find it to be so distinct.

No, he never, never spoke about himself or his work past or anything. He, I’m sure, was well aware of the significance of his work, but it was all a process. I’m not surprised that he was exploring humanity and decay as a contrast to what he was doing for Vogue, which was so in search of perfection, and life just isn’t like that. And he was a very intelligent man and he had a great sensitivity. He was a very sensitive person and really connected to what makes us human, and that’s obviously our mortality; life isn’t perfect and—I’m projecting, but I would imagine because he himself had such a controlled environment and controlled personality since that was his nature, at least as I experienced it, it wouldn’t surprise me—and this is conjecture—but that wouldn’t surprise me. We’re all drawn to the things that are not known to us, and so I’m not surprised that he was drawn to decay and those still life photographs and the cigarette butts in the ashtray and how the world falls apart or is, in reality, not perfect, as opposed to these controlled environments where he could create such perfect images.

That’s really interesting that he would take minimal snaps as opposed to today with digitals where I feel like there’s a bajillion photos to go through for selects.

Yeah, it was art. You were just waiting for that, like I said, you were just waiting for the moment when everything was just perfect and of course, he knew it before any of us, and then he’d capture it. Once he had articulated what he was hoping to see what would happen on the set, he would just kind of remove himself, his presence from the set and just observe. It was almost as if he became one with the camera.

“Irving Penn: Paintings” is on view through Oct. 13 at Pace Gallery (32 E 57th Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY)

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