The Verdant Legacy of Irving Penn's Flowers

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Iceland Poppy (B), New York, 2006 The Irving Penn Foundation
Iceland Poppy (B), New York, 2006 by Irving PennCourtesy of The Irving Penn Foundation

The iconic photographer's Flowers series goes on display in its entirety for the first time this week – and it's as astonishing as ever

In 1967, art director Alexander Liberman commissioned Irving Penn to lens a still life series of flowers for the December edition of American Vogue. Using his signature compositional clarity, the influential image-maker eschewed the sentimentality so commonly associated with blooms, for a stark focus on structure, texture, palette and anatomical function.

Captured face on, with a dewy glaze as though spontaneously plucked from an efflorescent field, the resulting images of ripe tulips on an austere backdrop are both startling and unconventionally beautiful – splayed over double-page spreads to expose their botanical splendour while hinting at their delicate, temporal morality. So successful was the series that Penn went on to photograph seven more, showcasing one species of his choice per year – from poppies to peonies, lilies and roses – which appeared in consecutive Christmas issues of Vogue until 1974, and eventually culminated in a book entitled, Flowers [1980].

This week, Penn’s Flower oeuvre goes on show in its entirety for the first time ever at Hamiltons gallery in London, curated by owner Tim Jefferies. Here, Jefferies sheds light on Penn’s fascination for florals, still life technique and photographic legacy.

On the exhibition and inspiration behind it…
“This is a museum quality exhibition housing, for the first time ever, Irving Penn's Flower series in its entirety. All 42 prints. The series was initiated by an assignment for Vogue in 1967, but Penn continued to photograph flowers until his death in 2009. Hamiltons has been Penn's exclusive representative, within the UK, for over a quarter-century and this is the third time I have had the unique privilege of presenting an entire series of photographs printed by the legendary photographer as an edition. We have published a beautiful hardbound catalogue raisonné, in collaboration with The Irving Penn Foundation, to honour the magnitude of this exhibition.”

On the standout works form the series...  
“I would say Cottage Tulip, because he chose this picture for the cover of his Flowers book – it is an amazing composition of colour and form. Also, Poppy Glowing Embers – the name is a true signifier for the image – it really glows! The dye-transfer process he used to make the print provides the truest reproduction of the actual flower due to the highly saturated colours. And Rose Colour Wonder – a very painterly flower – his presentation of this single stem connects his work to that of the Old Masters, highlighting the beauty of an individual bud.”

On the evolution of Penn’s still life photography technique…
“Penn's early training and exposure to the old masters of painting and sculpture influenced his evolution as a photographer. He showed conceptual depth from the start, and he continued to interpret, explore and push the boundaries of modernism in his treatment of still life subjects. The Flowers help to demonstrate that exploration, since they became a focus of his attention over more than three decades.”

Flowers, by Irving Penn, runs at Hamiltons until January 16th, 2016.