Irving Penn’s Iconic Shot of the World’s First Supermodel

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Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New York Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © Condé Nast

As a new exhibition celebrating his centennial opens at New York's Met, we decode an unforgettable image of the photographer's wife, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn

“Many photographers feel their client is the subject. My client is a woman in Kansas who reads Vogue,” said legendary photographer Irving Penn, speaking in an interview with The New York Times in 1991. “I’m trying to intrigue, stimulate, feed her. My responsibility is to the reader.” It is this attitude – among other things – that made Irving Penn one of the most celebrated photographers of his generation. This week, a hundred years after his birth in 1917, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has opened the doors to a major retrospective of his photographs, featuring “both masterpieces and hitherto unknown prints from all his major series” – with fashion photography, portraits, and still lifes that pay homage to the breadth of his practice. As this exhibition opens, we explore one such image: his 1950 portrait of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, the photographer’s wife and a woman who is widely cited as the first supermodel.

Titled Rochas Mermaid Dress, this image is one of many Penn took of his partner of 42 years. Originally from Sweden and an accomplished dancer and sculptor, Fonssagrives-Penn posed for the greatest photographers of her day, such as Horst P. Horst (who she was married to before Penn), Man Ray and Richard Avedon. It is with Penn, however, that she is most commonly associated. “She was the inspiration and subject of some of Penn’s greatest photographs,” said Alexander Liberman the former editorial director of Conde Nast Publications, which publishes Vogue. “She epitomised a very noble period of fashion and couture. She gave a classical dignity to anything she wore.” Fonssagrives-Penn herself, though, was self-effacing about her gift as a fashion model, telling Time magazine, “It is always the dress, it is never, never the girl. I’m just a good clothes hanger.” (She was, incidentally, the first model to grace the cover of Time, earning the title “Billion-Dollar Baby”.)

Penn once said that what he really tries to do is “photograph people at rest, in a state of serenity” – and that is evident in this image, taken for Vogue, of Fonssagrives-Penn. Set against a plain backdrop (in stark contrast to the elaborate sets favoured by Penn’s contemporaries), she looks as beautiful as she does at ease. It’s a testament to one of the greatest photographer-muse relationships of the age and fitting that the two were married – just two weeks after this photograph was taken.

Irving Penn Centennial runs until July 30, 2017 at The Met Fifth Avenue, New York.