Last night’s Pratt Institute tribute to Irving Penn was one for the books: Anna Wintour gave a moving 20-minute tribute to Penn’s life and work, and Hamish Bowles taught what was virtually a master class on the style and genius of Vogue photographers since Edward Steichen.
The event was part of Pratt’s President’s Lecture Series. Organizers said they received 2,500 RSVP requests for 504 seats—the most of any lecturer in the 16-year-old series since Yoko Ono.
What made it so special was Wintour’s obvious esteem for the reserved photographer and the anecdotes she told from their 20-year relationship:
- They didn’t exactly strike up an easy rapport when Wintour became editor-in-chief. “I was in awe of him,” she said, and was drawn to the “biting wit” of his photos—she called Penn a “seductive” man on whom she immediately had “an intellectual crush.” But she also compared the early years of the partnership to a tentative first-date: “It took me some time to realize how important he would be to Vogue, even beyond the photographs.”
- The turning point for Wintour was Penn’s 1990 photo, “Cleopatra’s Eye” (a haunting close-up of a kohl-eyed beauty with a color-blocked snake): “When that photograph came in, it opened my eye to the greatness he had,” she said.
- Wintour detailed how Penn would arrive to work each morning in elegant street clothes–complete with a trilby hat–change into jeans, and greet everyone in the studio before he started his day. In the evenings, he did the reverse: he bid everyone adieu, changed back into his pristine street clothes, and walked home.
- In Penn’s later years, the two of them met frequently for lunch at Union Square Café or Il Cantinori—the only two restaurants where he’d agree to eat. Wintour said those lunches were always the same: during the appetizers and first course, Penn would bemoan the current state of Vogue—celebrity-driven coverage, too much text on the cover, over-styled models—but by dessert, he’d be asking, “So, what are we going to do next?”
- Wintour outlined several of her most memorable Penn photos: His award-winning cover of Nicole Kidman in a backless Christian Lacroix gown, the wrinkled mouse in a vat of anti-aging cream, his portrait of Julian Schnabel, an “unimaginably intimate” shot of his bedside lamp.
- She also bemoaned his shy personality (over decades of working for Vogue, he attended only one Christmas party—at the then-edgy Spy Bar in SoHo): “His humility made it hard to celebrate him…He wanted to be invisible.”
- By the end of the lecture, her voice cracking, Wintour called Penn a beacon for everyone at Vogue: “He made me a better editor. He was always in my head…. Irving’s gifts to us will not end.”
After the address, Bowles’ treated photo-buffs to a walk through the Vogue photo archives, chronicling images from Beaton, Mainbocher, and Horst P. Horst to Avedon, Leibovitz, and Weber. He shared several funny anecdotes about the process behind some of the more recent shots—Stella Tennant’s famous tweed-clad dive, for instance, was born out of her complaint of modeling tweed in July heat.
The evening closed with Wintour answering a handful of pre-selected questions from Pratt students. Most were softballs about CDFA and sustainable fashion. Her response to a query about the role of bloggers and Tweeters in the fashion world?
“We laude as much coverage on fashion as possible—we don’t care where it comes from,” she says. “But with all the noise, it actually helps Vogue, because we have authority.”