The Irving Penn Centennial at the Metropolitan Museum a few months ago jarred loose my memories of working with the legendary photographer on some images (above and below) for Vogue years ago. I was hired as food stylist to provide him with whatever materials would help him fulfill his vision. I didn’t realize the degree of his fame when I went to discuss the project with him at his Fifth Avenue studio.
I don’t remember who alerted me to call him MISTER Penn, not Irving. Or not to speak unless he spoke to me. And to not enter the set room in his Fifth Avenue studio unless he asked for me. The information seemed somehow to be understood by everyone in the studio and not at all as strict as it sounds.
In fact, Mr. Penn proved charming. During the two to three-hour wait for the big 8 x 10 sheets of film to be processed and analyzed, we had conversations about travels, his work, the city…But only when he initiated them. After he complemented the frog legs I’d brought him for the photograph above, I blurted out: Mr. Penn, you don’t know what I went through to get them, thinking to tell him the gist of the wild story.
Penn’s hand shot up in a gesture of STOP; he shook his head, warning me to say no more. The story was unnecessary and disruptive. He didn’t want it in his head.
It was a big lesson in the clear setting of boundaries: Penn had figured out exactly what he needed to do his very precise work. He consciously controlled what came into his field of vision to allow nothing to get in the way of the flow. His studio was a serene ecosystem he had carefully created. He achieved this by being very clear about what he wanted, with extremely refined, almost old-fashioned manners.
The letters of artists and writers are peppered with their frustration at having their work interrupted. In A Year from Monday, John Cage describes the composer Arnold Schoenberg, with whom he studied, bemoaning the obligation he felt to respond to letters:
For…all I want is to compose. Even the fact that I write so many letters is a very harmful deviation from this principle. And though any one who means well by me should certainly write me as often as possible (for I’m always glad of that) it should be in such a way that I don’t have to answer!
Andrew Ferguson recalls E.B. white, author of Charlotte’s Web, response to his request to visit.
“Dear Mr. Ferguson,” the letter read. “Thank you for your letter about the possibility of a visit.” After this uplifting sentence, the tone went brittle. He mentioned a couple of his stubborn ailments, including his failing eyesight. And then: “So here I am, one eye gone, half my wits gone, and you want to come and view the ruins. Figure it out. There’s one of me, at most, and there are ten thousand of you. Please don’t come.
Sincerely, E. B. White.”
Over the years I’ve realized that Mr. Penn’s big lesson came in the form of questions: