Pace Live

On Radical Modernism, “Photographism,” and Irving Penn

With Grace Coddington, Jefferson Hack, and Antwaun Sargent

Recorded on February 3, 2021

Presented on the occasion of Irving Penn's exhibition, Photographism, in New York, this online panel explores the seminal photography and radical image-making of Penn.

The panelists include Grace Coddington, former Creative Director-at-large of Vogue, Jefferson Hack, Creative Director, Curator, and Co-founder of Dazed Media, and Antwaun Sargent, Writer, Editor, and Curator. The conversation was moderated by Mark Beasley, Curatorial Director at Pace.

Learn more about Irving Penn.

Mark Beasley (MB): Welcome, again. I'm (opens in a new window) Mark Beasley, the Curatorial Director at Pace Gallery, and we're here to discuss, think through, and celebrate the work of Irving Penn and the exhibition (opens in a new window) Irving Penn: Photographism. It's open to the public until February 18th and I urge everyone who has not seen the show in the flesh, so to speak, to RSVP through the (opens in a new window) Pace website. Photographism was curated by (opens in a new window) Kimberly Jones and (opens in a new window) Mica Mohrmann at Pace. Our collective thanks go to all at the (opens in a new window) Irving Penn Foundation without whom access to the work and the paper file with Penn's handwritten term, “photographism,” would not have resulted in the exhibition. Many thanks to the foundation for that. A quick mention to audience members out there, if you look below in the webinar, there is a Q&A button and I would ask that if you have questions to submit them there. I am somewhat monitoring while moderating the panel, those questions, and towards the end of our hour-long conversation will attempt to get to as many of those as we can. I want to quickly introduce the terms of the exhibition, what the focus of it is, then our panelists, then we'll show the images from the exhibition and then we'll get into it. I hope it's not too much of me, but I wanted to ground it in the work and the thoughts of Penn.

The exhibition consists of approximately thirty photographs that epitomize Penn's groundbreaking style, alongside preparatory sketches and storyboards that speak to the artist's approach to image-making and the term he coined, "photographism,” a process that's born out of his anti-hierarchical merging of high European Modernist sculpture and painting and the legacy of those artists he was introduced to early on—while working with Harper's Bazaar under the tutelage or mentorship of (opens in a new window) Alexey Brodovitch and at the Design Lab, his introduction to artists such as Dali, Man Ray, Matisse, Miro, and Picasso. For many of us, Penn's work first appeared, I know it did for me, in those magazines and archives of the art and design school library and in those copies of Vogue of the ‘50s and ‘60s that were art directed by the late (opens in a new window) Alexander Liberman and photographed by Penn. These periodicals connect to the deep history and the style and poise that the magazines of future generations, in my case and day, the face, and latterly even those postpunk scenes, that have borrowed from, and/or distorted, such a rich legacy that Penn provided. Such magazines, specifically Vogue, were home to experimental photography, elevating the status of the object as a personal narrative to the spilled contents of a perfectly appointed clutch bag, replete with theater viewing glasses and scattered pills, or the fleshy surrealism of a melted cheese topped with crawling ant and crimson pear, to those defining portraits of seminal artists, thinkers, and writers such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Picasso, Miles Davis, and Truman Capote, or Penn’s suggested sculptural quality and appointed style of a raised Dior glove or a Balenciaga sleeve. In short, and over numerous decades, Penn redefined portraiture, fashion, beauty, and still life on a monthly, if not daily, basis. And so, to our panel, and for many need no introduction, but nonetheless, here we go.

(opens in a new window) Grace Coddington's remarkable contributions to contemporary fashion and image-making have shaped the public understanding of fashion as art and propelled her to a status enjoyed by only a mere handful of editors and stylists throughout the history of magazine publishing. Coddington holds the rare distinction of having worked with some of fashion's most celebrated photographers, both in front of and behind the camera. She worked initially as a model, appearing in editorials photographed by (opens in a new window) Helmut Newton, (opens in a new window) Norman Parkinson, and Guy Bourdin, among others. In 1968, she began working as a fashion editor of British Vogue, where she remained for nineteen years, rising to the position of Fashion Director and initiating her long-term working relationship with Anna Wintour. Grace has received two lifetime achievement awards, one from CFDA in 2002 and another at the Clio Awards in 2016. In 2009, she received the prestigious Isabella Blow Award. Grace currently contributes to both American Vogue and British Vogue. Welcome, Grace. Thank you for being here on our Zoom.

Grace Coddington (GC): Hey, good morning.

MB: Jefferson Hack is a creative director, curator, and co-founder of (opens in a new window) Dazed Media, a global independent media company founded in 1991 that comprises print, digital, and video brands: AnOther, Dazed, Dazed China, Dazed Korea, Dazed Beauty, Dazed Studio, and Nowness. Jefferson has curated exhibitions and festivals, including the (opens in a new window) Dazed 20th anniversary photographic exhibition at Somerset House, YOHOOD Festival in Shanghai with Daniel Arsham, and more recently (opens in a new window) Transformer: The Rebirth of Wonder at 180 The Strand during Frieze, which featured artists Doug Aitken, Juliana Huxtable, Jenn Nkiru, and Harley Weir, among others. Jefferson has edited multiple books with Phaidon Press, Steidl, and Rizzoli, and most recently, (opens in a new window) We Can't Do This Alone: Jefferson Hacked the System from 2016. Jefferson is on the Board of the Creative Industries Federation, the Advisory Board for the Fashion Trust Arabia, and is a member of the British Fashion Council's press committee. He's a prominent member of humanitarian and environmental charities, most notably an advocate for Crisis Action and Parlay for the Oceans. Welcome, Jefferson.

(opens in a new window) Antwaun Sargent is a writer, editor, a curator living here in New York City. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and various art publications. Antwaun is the author of (opens in a new window) The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion, published by Aperture, and is the editor of (opens in a new window) Young, Gifted and Black: A New Generation of Artists. He's currently a director at Gagosian Gallery. Welcome, Antwaun.

Welcome, all. Good to see you this afternoon. Looking very replete and styled. Before we begin, we thought it'd be good to present the images and flavor of the exhibition and to ground our discussion in Penn's work, so to speak. We're going to cycle through, I think, roughly twenty-five to thirty images. This is new to us. It is around three minutes long so bear with it. Let's have a somewhat guided meditation through the work of the exhibition and of Penn himself.

And there we have it. That's my first silence in many days, I think it is quite good to ground ourselves in those images, and such images that they are. Grace, my first question and thought are to you. As Creative Director of Vogue over many years, I believe you worked with Irving Penn in various capacities. I wonder if you could speak a little to your personal experience of working with photographers broadly, but particularly Penn and of your role at Vogue. I wonder what the process was like, perhaps what Penn was like, and was it a creative exchange?

GC: Well, I would definitely say it was a creative exchange. I got more from him than he got from me, I'm sure. It was something I had always wanted to do is work with him, but while I was working at British Vogue, he didn't work for British Vogue, so I never got that opportunity. I just admired his pictures so much. There's such a variety of them that I thought, well, even if I can't work with him, I would love to meet him. And I missed my chance. In the early 70s, he came to London and I think at that time he was doing a portfolio of flowers and he was shooting at Vogue’s studio. I was too shy to go up to him and say, “I’m Grace,” because he might say, “Who the hell is that?” But he probably wouldn't because he's unbelievably polite. Anyway, it was some twenty years later before I actually got to meet him. Briefly, I was working with Calvin Klein in between the Vogue in England and Vogue here and Calvin Klein introduced me. Actually, the first pictures I did with him was a series of advertisements for Calvin Klein and so before I did those, I said I really need to meet the guy. I can't just walk in on the day and walk in cold like that, and so I made an appointment and it was really wonderful. You sit down on this little table in the room between the studio and the makeup room, and he sits across the table from you and we just talked for hours and hours and hours. I thought, God, I don't know any other photographer that would do that, particularly now. It was nothing to do with the fact that we might be working together on a job. It was just, he had agreed to meet me, and it was mind-blowing. I was very excited by that and I really enjoyed the experience of the Calvin pictures I did. Shortly afterward, I left Calvin and I went to work at American Vogue when Anna Wintour joined. She was going through the photographers that had been there before her and so on, and the one she really wanted to hold on to was Penn. He had an incredible relationship with Alexander Lieberman, who was, at the time, still with us and at Vogue. She asked if I was interested to work with him on fashion, which I said, of course. I did quite a few shoots with him. I mean, nothing really outstanding. A few outstanding pictures, but I was so used to doing lots and lots and lots of pictures for a story and he's used to putting everything into one picture somehow. I continue to work for him, but then finally it became obvious that he needed so much time. He would take a day to take one picture or maybe two pictures. Then my friend who worked for Phyllis Posnick started working with him and she wasn't working with all the photographers and she had lots of time. She admired him enormously and she lived around the corner from him. She struck up a whole relationship with him and, ultimately, she worked with him exclusively for the last ten or fifteen years of his life. They have produced some extraordinary pictures and she took him almost to another level. I mean, he was reborn. I think he had a tough time in fashion in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He started not loving the clothes and that was the first problem. He only wanted to photograph something beautiful, like a Balenciaga or something from the ‘50s. It sort of didn't exist anymore. Maybe a little bit in couture or what have you. I continued to see him but I didn't continue to work with him. He was a really wonderful person and a very gentle person. I mean, he could be mean as hell, and tough as hell, when working and wanting what he wanted and I really respect that. If you have a hard time in the pictures, and they're bad at the end of it, then it's very annoying, but if you have a hard time and the picture is extraordinary at the end of it, it’s worth it. It’s really worth it. I can’t say that about a lot of photographers, actually.

MB: That makes sense.

GC: I won’t name any names here.

MB: Never mention names, Grace. Well, maybe.

GC: Some of the most difficult and the hardest are the better photographers. Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Annie Leibovitz. They're not easy. They are very demanding, and they don't stand for any bad or laziness or whatever. You have to be on your toes for all those people and Penn, obviously.

MB: Yeah. I think the amazing thing with Penn, and I want all of us to discuss it in a minute, is that consistently over decades he is a person who renegotiated the terms of image-making.

GC: Yes, he did.

MB: There is another quick question before we get to our other panelists. Was there anything specifically that you saw in those images or in the thinking, that made him a unique case? The approach of this exhibition is to say here's a man, a young man, who literally opened letters with drawings from Léger in it or saw Man Ray’s images, and all of that was like a sponge that kind of entered into that work. Do you think that this was the relationship he had with this high modernism that he drew into the magazine?

GC: Yes, if you just look at his pictures, they look very classic. They are what they are. They’re very direct, but also they are incredibly modern, whatever that means. You can't say, oh, he's had it, he's over it, he’s past it—even with fashion. That was because he was so particular. If you're so particular and you stay on that line all the time, then you are completely relevant. It's the ones that just think, oh, they know how to do it backward with their eyes closed, or whatever. You move on from them because you have to be there, you have to be present. And he was incredibly present whenever he was working. I don't think his pictures are dated. I am very lucky, I own several of them and several of the... Like Balenciaga dress, that’s old fashion. It's the ‘50s, but it looks to me very modern.

MB: Thank you, Grace. Jefferson, I think we generationally align, perhaps, and I wanted to speak to you for someone who experienced ‘90s London and the U.K.—I'm acknowledging my age and time here—Dazed & Confused was something of a style Bible for those who came of age with the young British artists and post-punk Britain. I was studying at the Royal College of Art at the time and working out who’s who, but my sense of that time was if you hadn't appeared in Dazed, and many of my friends had, or further been photographed by Rankin, your fellow founder of the magazine, you hadn't somehow made “the cut.” I wondered, as an editor and creative director and also curator, can you speak to your relationship working with artists and photographers? And what of Penn's world entered yours? What did you borrow or perhaps kick against, so to speak?

Jefferson Hack (JH): Sure. I mean, I loved hearing Grace just then talk about being in the studio and shooting with Penn. It's just so wonderful to hear those stories. I'm a fan. I never met the great man and had no personal connection, but just as a fan of photography... As a kid, when I was 14, 15, I used to wallpaper my bedroom, my teenage bedroom, with tear sheets from magazines—music magazines, tear sheets from Sunday supplements—and I remember having a double-page spread of the flowers. I looked at them every day, they were in my bedroom. They just were so animated and so figurative. The colors were incredible, almost otherworldly. I always believed in the power and this is, in a way, what Dazed always represented to me, what magazines represented to me, was the power to transport you to another reality. I used to buy early copies of Interview and look at Vogue and I was always transported into another place, another reality. I think what Penn’s photography does, in general, is suspend reality or suspend time. That's why a lot of people say his work feels very timeless because it's the suspension of time.

And then I think his fashion work... I got introduced to it by Nick Knight. I was working on a story with Nick Knight and Alexander McQueen for an issue of Dazed in the late ‘90s, which McQueen guest art directed, which was called “Fashion-Able,” the shoot that they were doing, and Nick was photographing people with different disabilities and Lee had commissioned different designers to make pieces that were very sculptural for each of the different people. Nick was a fan of Penn's and he introduced me to the work—that kind of ‘50s era that Grace was talking to—of those incredibly sculptural pictures of fashion that he did with (opens in a new window) Lisa Fonssagrives, I think, who later became his wife. He was talking to me about the line and the form and the geometry and the silhouette and how and that's really how... I got to know Penn through the eyes of Nick Knight. That was my introduction. Beautiful. So, I'm always very grateful to other photographers who have introduced me to other photographers. I remember (opens in a new window) Corinne Day introducing me to (opens in a new window) Larry Clark for the first time. Never heard of him before, but it was brilliant to see Penn through the eyes of Nick Knight.

MB: I have to think as a curator, ‘Don't speak to the curators, ask artists who they're looking at.’ That kind of continuum. I think artists understand sometimes before the curator or the organizer. Antwaun, I'm a very happy owner of your recent publication. Congratulations on your publication with Aperture, (opens in a new window) The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion. To my mind, it introduces a broader audience to the work of photographers who are engaged in a form of deconstruction towards new imaging and a look perhaps at the social construct of Black portraiture. As you suggest, it's a way of fighting photography with photography. This new gaze establishes and platforms the significance of the Black figure and the Black creative, which hinges upon this blurring of art and fashion. Within the pages I see there's this generation that chooses self-portrait, chooses to photograph perhaps family members and non-models alongside models, imaging the street, or presenting via social media feeds such as Instagram, which feels radical. It feels like a radical modernism—to reference the term or the title of this panel discussion. I wondered, what do you see in the work of Penn? Are there moments of cultural exchange? I wonder what is borrowed and maybe what is discarded?

Antwaun Sargent (AS): Thanks for the really wonderful introduction to the book. I mean, I think that one of the things that you have to contend with in the history of photography—Irving Penn. He's in the canon. When you think about his concept, what you are really looking at when you're looking at the pictures is this anti-hierarchical positioning of objects, of people, in a space of a photograph. I think that you can draw a line between contemporary image-makers and that idea of thinking about photography as a democratic medium. You touched on this idea of imaging family members alongside models, it's really to elevate ideas of beauty and put them on equal footing, which I think you see that throughout Penn’s very, very long career. You think about the work that he was doing with Clinique. You think about the work he did, obviously with Vogue. Naomi Campbell, beautiful Naomi Campbell, photographed from the ‘90s, comes to mind. But then you also think about his travels around the world and the ethnographic work, and how that work, really in a lot of ways, thought about notions of portraiture that wasn't always included in magazines. I think that you have that legacy today in contemporary photography. Those advertisements, the Clinique advertisements, stay in my mind where they were also incredibly fun. There was a funny sensibility to them and thinking through how do you play with branding and those things to make sure that the artistry, the artist’s voice, comes through. I think that that is a part of the contemporary movement in image-making. I think that now that we have technologies like Instagram where anyone could be a photographer—you have a camera in your phone—I think the possibilities of further spreading images from very different points of view is happening. I think that magazines now, unlike before where that was the vehicle to push photography and publish photography, you know, it still is one of the biggest platforms in all of image-making... Back in the day, you had an experimental vibe in pages, in magazines like Vogue and others. You see his legacy, but you see his legacy not only in traditional spaces like magazines, but you also see that in spaces like Instagram and social media where you literally have a million images coming at you in a minute. The way that I see Penn's legacy is as being one of these giants for this current generation that is totally against traditional notions of basically anything. I think you see that in his work. I think that in every picture you're seeing this push against traditional notions of desire and beauty and being.

MB: I agree. There was something that we talked about yesterday when we grouped and we did our tech test, which is a new pre-gathering for any discussion. It was something that you mentioned in relation to Penn, which is that it was a very different kind of space. Over decades, there was this kind of auteur-ship. There was this sense of travel, this sense of nurturing an image-maker, and I wonder if you felt that... What we've lost in not having that space? Or is the proliferation of more voices and more people at the table, is that what we’re looking to do? It struck me when thinking about it, as well as the kind of mass appeal of the magazine. I speak to more and more young artists here in New York and there’s this return to zine-making. I'm thinking of a young maker, practitioner, called (opens in a new window) Devin Morris, and he pulled out this zine, 3 Dot Zine, and it goes to one hundred people. It's handmade. It really nurtures this sub-subculture and there’s this kind of internal strengthening of a group that I think operates alongside the broader, sharper beam of Instagram and the IG community. I love that parallel to the extent that Penn also feels like he's in that fanzine, read by a hundred people—this very strong crafting of an image. I'm going to ask you all more questions now. I would love to hear from Grace, too. What do you think makes a strong image now? Now we're looking at a kind of social construction of the image, what in your minds makes for a great image? It's a very broad shotgun question, but Grace, I'd love to hear from you.

GC: It's very broad.

MB: It is broad.

GC: I think that there are two different ways of looking at it. One is a single image and the other is a pattern of images that tell the story and document... I loved Antwuan’s book because it opened up a whole new world to me. It was telling me what's happening in life now, whereas, in a way, Penn’s things are very studied, very single, images; even when there were three people in them all. Everything was slower then, and now everything's so quick. You get a point of view from hundreds of people. In a way that frustrates me, but on the other hand, that’s how it is now. You get an opinion from Instagram, from all those people, and then if you can find a magazine, you can look at a magazine and see what's going on there. I thought it was also very interesting. I was reading that a lot of those young photographers in your book self-publish and things like that, in order that they didn't have to compromise. I think one thing you have to realize about photography, up until recently, is there were always lines that you had to work between, that you had to compromise a little, which all those kids in that book didn't have—so they were much freer in a way. Having said that, in a way, Penn was free because he earned it. You certainly didn't say to him, "could you photograph it from the side or from the back or whatever," or "you can only do Michael Kors or Givenchy." He picked and chose what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it, which in a way, the photographers in business, in magazines, in advertising, they don't have that freedom, I think. That's not really the answer to your question, but Penn really does have a very strong single image, and he's always looking for a shape. That's why he loved photographing (opens in a new window) Issey Miyake so much because all those pleated clothes and things became sculptural and certainly the '50s clothes were very sculptural. The body shape was so extraordinary, that it is like a sculpture, which is, I think, what intrigued him. Well, that's it.

MB: I think with him, as I was reading more about his life and times, there was this thing that kept hitting—this idea of a removal of a narrative. There weren't backdrops necessarily we were really zeroing in on the object. There was this kind of space that a minimalism allows for you to apply your own narrative.

GC: Yeah, he's absolutely a minimalist. I told you a story yesterday when I was going to him for pictures because I've done a couple of books too and I wanted to use a whole lot of his pictures and he would only give me three because he said less is more. If you look at his books, they are all edited like that. They are very spare. His vision is very direct.

MB: Yeah, you feel that. It's undiluted.

GC: Yeah, completely undiluted. It either works or it doesn't work. If it doesn't work, he'll turn around and walk out of the room. And good luck taking it back to the magazine because you won’t get it.

MB: Jefferson, this is a little bit like asking a musician what's their favorite music. I know it's an awful question.

JH: You want to know what my favorite Penn picture is?

MB: Yeah, absolutely. Let's ground it in Penn.

JH: I've got to ground it in Penn, really. I mean otherwise, it's just too big a thing to think about. I think going off what you asked Grace—what makes a great picture, a great picture? I think magazine and advertising culture is all about seducing the eye of the reader. It's all about stopping the reader. I think, as Grace said, that synthesis that Penn had to put loads of ideas into an image stopped you in your tracks. Here's a guy who was trained as an art director under the greatest art directors of all time, and he didn’t start as a photographer. I think there's that story—he started with (opens in a new window) Brodovitch, he was in the design lab with Brodovitch, and then he works with (opens in a new window) Liberman at Vogue, and he's giving photographers ideas and they won't shoot. And Liberman says to him, "You should start shooting your own ideas. Why don't you go and learn to be a photographer?" So he did and he started shooting his own ideas. I think what you've got is a couple of mindsets at work. You've got the mindset of a photographer who's framing reality in their interpretation of that, and you've got an art director who's constructing reality. Thus, you've got ideas on top of ideas. I think that's what makes him so powerful. There is a line in the sand in fashion photography, before and after Penn. Before Penn, you have (opens in a new window) Cecil Beaton, (opens in a new window) Baron de Meyer, and Horst who are very elaborate image-makers—narrative-driven image-makers. Then he just has this incredible gift through reduction and a process of simplification to go “bam” and I love that. I mean, that's what we all love. That's what we determine as (opens in a new window) radical modernism. But I think what Antwaun was talking about—with advertising, art, fashion, beauty, and the mix of that—where he was really radically modern for me was where there was no hierarchy between that. He refers to it as a full meal. He said, "to have a diet of all of it is like having a full meal." We see it in this exhibition. It's really interesting. All these images are now completely devoid of context. We're looking at images, but we've got no context for them. These photos would have had a layout, they would have had editorial around them, they would have had a time stamp. There would have been a cover that said: “1957 Vogue” with loads of copy on it. There would have been images with advertising copy around them. What's interesting is that great images endure. Great images, it doesn‘t matter if they come from beauty, fashion, or advertising culture. If it's a great image and it endures, it’s art. I don't think it was until Warhol that the art world woke up to that and was like, "There's no high art and low culture anymore." Warhol just went "bam.” I think [Penn] was doing that, he was thinking that in the '50s.

AS: Yeah, I mean, I think that's what's super interesting about the images is this idea, which doesn't sound too radical now, of removing hierarchy. In what you just touched on, we don't get photography, or any real reverence, until the 1970s. And that's when you start to see a real appreciation for photography in art. I think that to have Penn as an early champion of the possibilities and power of photography as an art form was hugely beneficial to the medium. What makes it so timeless is also the positionality—him not compromising and having values around his image-making. I do think it is important to point out that a lot of contemporary photographers now, in some ways, appreciate and acknowledge the work, but also are trying to figure out ways to make images against that tradition—to make images against the images that they saw growing up that didn't necessarily capture their realities. There were far few image-makers who had an opportunity to shoot the cover of Vogue or to shoot the inside spreads or what have you. I think what's interesting is that he is a pioneer and foil in a lot of ways for this generation, and the ones that came after him.

MB: Yeah, absolutely, I think it's correct. You necessarily need something to push against, to work with, to manipulate...

GC: It is always better to work against something, I think.

MB: Yeah.

JH: Grace, I wanted to ask you what you thought about that cover, the one that's in the exhibition, the black and white cover of Vogue, and what was going on in fashion at that time for women who were reading, and what that image in that time in fashion and culture represented for you?

GC: Well, it certainly stops you, that cover. It's really in your face because it is so simple. I don't know what was going on culturally. That’s from the '50s, right? I don't know the dates exactly.

JH: Was it the Christian Dior (opens in a new window) New Look? Was that the kind of moment we're in?

GC: Probably. Yeah, I mean, you can't see until you see the skirt.

MB: Is this the image with (opens in a new window) Jean Patchett that you’re talking about, Jefferson?

GC: The black and white one, the first one.

MB: Yeah.

AS: It's a close-up, it’s like a headshot.

GC: Yeah. I don't know how he happened on that, because I think that's very far from what everybody was generally doing at that time, but that's Penn. It's the sculptural point of view in the '50s, which plays into it very well. I can’t really answer your question.

MB: Here we go.

GC: Yeah, I mean it’s very still and yet it’s very alive—it's funny.

JH: That’s the thing about his still lifes, aren’t they? It’s that you can’t really call them still lifes.

GC: No, there’s cheese pouring or a mouse running wrinkly over something or... I don’t know. No, they’re still but they're moving. He would certainly not do a jumping picture or anything like that, but there's a life in them and when you can see them, you don't always see the face in his fashion pictures, but when you do, you really feel the photographer and the model. You feel a relationship somehow. I think it's interesting, some of his portraits, let's say, of women or men, they are incredibly sensitive, I think.

GC: They’re very alive.

JH: The (opens in a new window) Miles Davis portrait, (opens in a new window) Picasso portrait, Elsa Schiaparelli, are amazing, but for the Miles Davis one, there's a kind of funny story that I read about that portrait and I think it's in the exhibition as well. Apparently Miles Davis turns up to his studio and he's got the glasses on, the coat, the fur, a whole suit on, a hat, jewelry, and then Penn starts photographing him and slowly he starts getting him to take off the jewelry, take off the glasses, take off the coat. Eventually, Miles Davis is there with just a bare torso, and Penn's taking pictures of him. It's all about that kind of reduction that you were talking about, that less is more and getting closer to the humanity of the person. Then he does these incredible portraits of his (opens in a new window) hands, which is just a kind of ultimate reduction. Miles Davis gets up at the end of the session and goes and gives him a kiss on the lips and walks off. I think that’s a brilliant story.

MB: That's great, that's a pure exchange. I love the other kind of reduction—this incredible jazz musician, the act of the hand as a kind of performance is brilliant.

JH: There's a lot of performance in his pictures, I think in general.

GC: Yes, that’s a good way of describing it, really more than movement. He really does see into the person very well. If they're not very interesting people or something—his picture reflects that even. He reflects the good and the bad of the person somehow. It’s interesting.

MB: I think the first image I ever saw of (opens in a new window) Francis Bacon was shot by Penn. I read everything about Bacon, but then this image solidified it. It still remains mysterious. I saw the strength of his character that was coming through. We have a number of questions from our audience. I've been trying to read these while moderating. I'm pointing out a few here, many of which we've gotten to already. This from Irene, who asks, "Is it possible for a photographer still to be radical with the current pressure of branding and commercial desire now? Do any of you see a space for great photography that somehow works with, or at one remove to commercial need?"

AS: I mean, it's the classic chicken and egg. You have to make a living, right? And you have to negotiate the living. Some people separate completely and I love that Penn didn't do this, but some people separate completely an art practice from a commercial practice, and that's how you deal with it in your mind. But I do think that there is something important about “commercial photography”—those are the images that we encounter, whether we want to or not. We're not walking into Pace Gallery subjecting us to those images. We're not buying a magazine. We're not following someone on a social media feed. These are the images that make up our contemporary visual culture. Therefore, I think that we need great artists in those spaces because it helps to construct and define. When you think about desire, how women should look, how men should act, and all these things, you think about that portfolio that Penn did of all the men and this real meditation on labor and real meditation on style and work. I think that you need to be in those spaces and for me, I am just in this moment, super interested in the fact that you have all of these photographers moving in between these different spaces. One might shoot a cover of Vogue, but then also appear in a Comme des Garçons ad. Some might do something for Instagram and then also for a magazine, or might produce their own magazines or their own zines as a way to also talk about the things that the magazine doesn't want to necessarily talk about or is not happening in that month or in that season. I think that, in this moment, my advice is to operate on all cylinders. I think every photographer has worked under different conditions; conditions have always existed. There will never be a space where you don't have to negotiate the conditions in which you're creating. I think that it's really great to see the way in which someone like Penn or some of these contemporary photographers move through those conditions and the resulting images.

GC: I think it's very interesting, too. I love the photographers who do their commercial work, which is maybe commercial, maybe not, but it's the one that they earn their living with, and then they go off and do a project for themselves. There are several young photographers now that are doing that. It can't just be what you see in a magazine that's... I think less and less you'll see images that you remember. However, in my life span, I always said that when you do a shoot, very often a picture is dropped. I'm always saying that's my favorite picture. But the funny thing is, when you go back, the ones you remember are the ones that were published. It was funny when I was doing my book, and all those ones that I fought so hard to get in the magazine, I'd completely forgotten because they were never published. So, it is important what's published. If you can publish it yourself, that's great, but I do think also it's great that if you go and do stuff just for yourself, you are completely free. I think what gets produced when you're free is... Sometimes it's more difficult to be free, actually—sometimes it's easier to have guidelines. I don’t know.

JH: I echo what both of you said, and I love Antwaun, what you're talking about in your book about self-publishing and that this new culture of zine-making and agency for artists. I think that's really incredible that you're able to help promote all of that. But for me, coming back to Penn, those (opens in a new window) Cigarette series and things picked up from the New York streets are just incredible, because if you think about it, here's a guy who has changed the world of photography, changed the world. He's worked at the highest level in advertising and in editorial, and he's walking to his studio and he's looking at the ground and he's picking up a cigarette butt, and he’s picking up like a squashed coffee cup, and he's carrying it in his hands to his studio, then laboriously forensically photographing in the most elaborate... And he's printing it in this palladium platinum, printing it in the most elaborate way that takes days, a fucking cigarette. What's incredible about that to me is that ideas are in front of our feet, they’re under our noses. I think he did that personal work. And for me, some of the most monumental work are those cigarettes and some of that series. They are just so poetic. You can keep looking at them because... I mean, I can smell New York. I can smell nicotine when I look at those pictures and those cigarettes. I love this thing that Grace said that you should always believe you don't need permission to play as a young creative. You just follow your ideas and, great if you get commercial work, but if not, just photograph cigarette butts. It's going to be okay.

AS: I have to say... I think you do need permission, though, because I think we have a history of these iconic images. I think that those published images that Grace talks about do create a permission structure. That's why we have the history of art. You have canons. I think that we are saying these images matter, these artists matter, this sort of perspective matters. You can go off and do whatever you want, but there are notions of beauty and there are notions that are established in the way in which we take images and what images are published.

JH: Sure, but David started the (opens in a new window) Underground Museum in L.A., he didn't have permission, but he started one of the most important establishments for contemporary...

AS: I guess what I would say about that, my comeback would be that there was a Studio Museum that existed. There was (opens in a new window) Helen Molesworth who helped him with the structure of that museum. My point is that there were north stars. There were people to help to give you that space of “yeah, take the risk.” I don't know, maybe we just could have come down on opposite sides of this.

JH: But I think the thing is, what I've seen happen to photographers that do a lot of commercial work, and Grace has seen it in our careers in fashion, is that they get sucked into the machine.

GC: They can't take a free picture anymore. The little voice in the back of their head that says "she's got a smile," or whatever it is.

JH: I agree with you, Antwaun. There are complexities around permission, and that's a whole subject that's really interesting. But I think, in terms of what we were talking about with photographers balancing commercial and non-commercial work, the danger is you can get very easy to get sucked into the commercial machine and start changing your thinking.

GC: I see it happening all the time with new young photographers or whatever. I say don't come and work with us yet. Get strong at what you do so that you really believe in what you do before you start coming to a magazine that will try to shift you and Vogue-ize you, or whatever it is, or Dazed-ize you or something, I don't know. But we do it in magazines constantly and it makes me sad, but it's the reality of life, as you said.

AS: I guess that was my point, that there is a Vogue look, there is a Dazed look. There are aesthetics that are developed and constructed and those aesthetics, the silent thing that is happening with putting the thumb on a certain type of picture versus another, is that we're shaping the ways in which the viewer perceives themselves, but also the ways in which photographers shoot. That's why you look on an Instagram platform and you see these colorful photos and all the stuff because those photos are being reinforced by likes. It's a different sort of technology. But when you publish a certain type of photograph in a magazine, that's what happens. I think this notion of freedom, as you said, Jefferson, it’s just so complicated because of us having to negotiate and deal with those images that already exist and exist in spaces in which we want to be. I think that some artists want to be commercial photographers and they want to do that thing, and others don't, but I really do think that there is a bit more nuance and complication that drives the photography that we see and the images that come out of that. I think that has to do with the fact that there are museum collections and art and magazines that have reinforced certain aesthetics over others.

MB: I hear both sides of the discussion in the sense that when I hear “permission,” there’s both institutional permission or access to a platform, and then maybe it's generational, but I also hear Jefferson in this punk, post-punk idea of no permission needed. That I have a freedom to create, but I think, yes, as I see it, there are institutional permissions required. I loved at the start of your book, Antwaun, that young photographer who had the Vogue cover is twenty-three I think, is it (opens in a new window) Tyler Mitchell? That was the first time that a Black artist-photographer shot the cover and I think maybe that's the kind of “permission-ing” that is changing, hopefully.

AS: But I think that...

MB: We're getting into it right at the end.

AS: We're not disagreeing.

MB: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think we’re disagreeing.

AS: I think that there's this fabulous idea that, you're an artist, go create and whatever. But I do think there's the other side of that where there are structures around the commercial structures and art structures and magazine structures where, you just talked about Tyler, who was the first Black photographer to shoot the cover. If that's the first Black photographer in 2018 to shoot the cover, then what do you think all the other photographers who came before him, just as good, if not better, et cetera, et cetera, what does the magazine not allowing those photographers from that community shoot for the magazine, what permission structure... What is the implication of that? The implication is that you can't shoot for this magazine. No matter what type of photo you take, the action of that magazine is saying you can't shoot for this magazine. I think that, while I am totally there with, go out and pick up a cigarette butt and that sort of ethos, I do think that there are conditions that imply other realities that have just as much weight and inform our image-making practices that also have to be dealt with that are just not as simple as just taking whatever photo you want. I think that we talked about zines and this sort of culture. If you think about a magazine like Dazed, why was that magazine started? We were not seeing certain things reflected in the general media magazine environment.  For me, it's just a lot more complicated and I think that with the young photographers making their own magazines and making their own exhibitions. I one-hundred-percent think that should keep going, but I also think about why that happens. I think the why is it incredibly important and why it happens is because there were not opportunities for their work to otherwise be seen and otherwise be valued. I think that it's also at play when we're talking about permission and freedom and what you shoot and why people shoot the way that they do and why it is that a majority of photography looks the same. Because they’re after the same sort of power and visibility that other images that came before them have had.

GC: I think things have changed enormously in the last year, two years, or something like that, and I think Tyler's very lucky. He came at exactly that moment where they were looking for something very different because I've worked at Vogue, both Vogues together for like fifty years. I know that they completely relied on "the thing that sold before is going to sell again and again and again." They were very nervous to start working with new photographers. It was very difficult to get new photographers into the magazine. We all kept trying and then it became no because they didn't produce exactly the same pictures we'd seen for all those years. It wasn't moving and I think they realized suddenly, so they suddenly opened up and they asked, and if you look now at the credits in Vogue and the other one, they're all names I don't know. They've suddenly opened up. Sometimes I think maybe they haven't actually appreciated what is good and what is not good, but at least they opened up and Tyler benefited from that by getting a cover. I think, probably in his career, that will help him a lot. I happen to like his pictures really a lot. I'd like to work with him. I met with him and it was at some exhibition or something, and I had this job for him to do and I said, "Well, what are you doing next week?" He said, “I'm not working anymore for the next six months because I have an exhibition somewhere,” so I was pissed.

JH: I think the key point is that the worlds of fashion, the worlds of art, the world of commercial advertising are very exclusive worlds. They're very privileged and they're very exclusive and a lot of people cannot get access to them, don't have access to them, and aren't able to participate even if they have incredible talent.

GC: It’s always been like that though.

JH: It has and that's been at the detriment of diversity and inclusion and the detriment of having a more incredible and diverse range of images being made. The point is that we end up in monocultures, we end up seeing the same type of imagery being repeated. But I think there are strong movements to change that.

GC: Definitely, definitely.

JH: While we're not there yet, I really applaud everybody who's part of that change. There is resistance to that change and it's strong. I think we're seeing those power structures being dismantled and new opportunities being opened up. I think, if anything, now, this new era, this time of COVID, this new election, post-election era, will hopefully be a moment of great acceleration for all that change. But it's wonderful to be on this panel with all of you because it's like we've hardly even scratched the surface and it's almost over.

MB: Actually, I was going to get to it. We're over our allotted time of one hour. But I wanted to thank you all. I think we have three... very placed in the center of generational moves, between the three of you. You've seen that kind of radical continuum over time. We have a couple more minutes. Here's my last question and it's, again, a broad one, and I hope we can get to it in a short amount of time. But this new change, this new vanguard, this hope for the changing of power structures and who's allowed to create images, like Penn did in his time, I wondered if you had any pointers to ways and means and platforms of image generation. Or if there's a particular artist that you see or think is of interest in this moment in time. Who’s that to you, Antwaun?

AS: Well, there is a book called The New Black Vanguard, you should all...

MB: I've seen it.

AS: It's not just these photographers. I do think that there are other folks that shoot for the magazine, like (opens in a new window) Ethan James Green, who's young and who's doing his own thing. I think that in this moment, we might be, at a place of change. I hope we are but I think that it will only happen if we continue to go down this path. I think that one of the things that we all have hinted at is that, no, not all the images are great that show up on covers and are published. But I do think if you published a bad one, you eventually get to the good ones. I do think that there needs to be, in agreement with Jefferson, there needs to be this real sense of experimentation and this real sense pushing. I don't know if that’s in line with the elitism that's pervasive in the magazine world, the art world, and the commercial photography world. I don't know if what we need is aligned with the ways in which those industries are currently set up. I think a few people have gotten through. You have Tyler, you have Ethan, (opens in a new window) Quil Lemons; you have a few folks. But then, like previous generations, those five or six or seven photographers become the photographers that everyone sort of goes to. I don't think that that is change. I think that that is just a move to just bring in a few more, but to apply them to the same system. Use them in the same ways. I think that this is a real opportunity, I hope, for us to really reimagine what image-making is. No, we're not going to get great images all the time. To answer your question, one of the photographers, who just so happened to be in the book, that I really am interested in is (opens in a new window) Renell Medrano, a young photographer, a Dominican photographer who grew up here in the city, New York. I'm just interested to see what else she could do. I'm always struck by the images. Are all the images perfect? No, but I'm just interested in, if given the opportunities, what sort of images can she make under different conditions? I could go down a list of young folks. But I do think that hopefully, we are at a moment of change. But I think if we had to just pick one, I think Renell is the photographer that I am really interested in. She’s shot a lot of commercial work, but I'm interested in what does [her] art photography look like? What does [her] more experimental, what are the possibilities? I do think that as much as this younger generation has used social media to push art and fashion to more on their own terms. I do think that there are great things in magazines and culture and art and museum culture that really could be a support to the development of the next generation of image-makers. I hope that there is more collaboration between the two.

MB: Thanks.

GC: Well, we certainly need a new generation because all the old generations or many of the old generations have died, so they're not going to produce any more work. We need someone as major as Penn to come along. Yes, they should have the opportunity because I'm sure Penn's first picture wasn't brilliant. But also, they should be helped in so much as we should be able to differentiate between a good picture and a bad picture. That's what worries me, is that everything's good because of Instagram, because everybody, as you say, has a camera in that phone and everybody's doing their own picture. Designers are taking their own picture, it’s crazy.

AS: Yeah. No, I think that's what I meant by that there are some real things that are in magazines or used to be in magazines, used to be in the art museums, where you have disinterment and you have taste and you have all of these things that are there that are important, I think, to get to a good picture. I agree with you that a lot of the images that you see are published or you kind of scratch your head. But I do think that that can be refined if we commit to some of the things that we discussed here around making sure that there are opportunities and making sure that it's a real sort of exchange. It's not just come in, do exactly what we want you to do, and then we'll never work with you again, you or what have you.

MB: Jefferson, last word to you!

JH: It's a big topic to answer and try and nail in one wrap-up sentence. Wow, I think it is about generational change and I think it is about there being a young generation that is able to be more empowered. Now that's a difficult word because how are they empowered when they're more perhaps now economically affected than ever before and the gatekeepers are the same old people? How do you change who the gatekeepers are and make sure those institutions are more diverse, which is why we've seen all of the museums and all of the art institutions, photography institutions, and fashion institutions, try and change internally, but it's slow. What I like about what Grace is saying is the generational change has to be transgenerational for it to be really good because you still need people to pass on experience and pass on knowledge and be able to kind of use wisdom to be able to say what's good and what isn't. When you look at Penn, I'm going to try and bring it back to Penn, because he was mentored by Brodovitch. Brodovitch trained Penn, trained Avedon, the list of photographers that came from Brodovitch was unbelievable. These guys were Russian or Eastern European émigrés coming from the war with not a lot. Penn was not someone of privilege. He was in a Vogue world, but he wasn't Cecil B. He wasn't coming with all of that baggage. He was a guy who had a much more humble history. In a way, when he approached fashion, he didn't approach it with all that finery. He approached it with his point of view, which was much more humble and more pared down and more looking at the kind of detail and precision and so forth. But it wasn't about trying to make a grand narrative, like some of these other photographers, like Beaton were doing. I think generational shift, people coming from backgrounds into advertising photography that don't have that baggage and looking at the world with new eyes, with fresh eyes, with a fresh perspective, is everything that I'm about. It's everything that Dazed & Confused was born on. Yeah, I'm trying to connect to and be involved in organizations that allow that to happen. I think that's the role now of everybody in our position to be able to be facilitators of change rather than to be in the way of it. Pace Gallery, Dazed, Gagosian, it has to be. I think when you're in a commercial bubble, change never happens. It never happens. It happens very, very slowly because everything's making money. So why change it when it's not making money? That's the cultural perspective. In times of crisis, change is much more likely to happen. Even though things are shit out there and it's tough out there and there's a lot of emotional and physical hardship that a lot of people who are watching this will be experiencing or know people that are experiencing because we can see it. I was speaking to this really inspiring cover star from Dazed called (opens in a new window) Janaya Future Khan, who many of you might know as being one of the spokespeople for Black Lives Matter—they are originally from Canada, now in Los Angeles—they said to me, “There is no success without struggle. There is no success without struggle.” And I just love that line because change doesn't happen without you fighting for it. Setting change, creative change, societal change, political change. Doesn't matter what—the change cannot happen without a fight and that's what we're going through right now. For all of the fighters out there, keep on fighting. There you go. I think Penn fought to the end himself as a creative because the guy just kept pushing the media like he was a printing-obsessive. He kept trying to do the best form of printing. You just think, God, this is a guy that never gave up the fight to keep improving and mastering his art. There are different forms of fight, but keep on fighting.

MB: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, everyone. Thank you to our audience out there. I'm sorry we didn't get to all your questions, but I think we got a lot of themes and topics and the moment. Thank you to Penn for being the progenitor of this discussion, being part of that transgenerational, which I love that term, moment that we're in. Thank you, everyone.

AS: Thank you so much.

GC: Thank you, thank you.

JH: Thank you and good night. Good night.

MB: Good night.

GC: Keep fighting.

AS: Goodnight.

  • Pace Live — On Radical Modernism, “Photographism,” and Irving Penn, Feb 5, 2021