Irving Penn’s book, Passage, is a staple in any photographer’s library. But, as a flower photographer, I couldn’t stop there. I just had to have his incredible book Flowers too.

In a photography career that spanned almost seventy years, Irving Penn worked on projects across many genres. As a photographer for Vogue magazine, he produced fashion spreads, still lifes, and portraits that were classically elegant and startlingly beautiful. Among them was a series of flower photographs that he did for Vogue every Christmas from 1967 to 1973. After that, he continued to photograph flowers, and in 1987 published the book Flowers.

In his only book dedicated to flowers, he describes a fairly lofty process of acquiring the various flowers he photographed. Some tulips were flown to New York City from Holland, others arrived “with the morning freshness still on them” from green houses and gardens around the United States.  The roses were photographed in a studio in London that was lent to him by colleagues at British Vogue. He states that, “In London I would spend a typical day visiting one of the several distinguished growers in the nearby viallages, marking blooms that would then be cut early the next morning and brought by car to the London studio.”

What I find most interesting about his flower photography is its starkness. He didn’t appear to be mesmerized by a flower’s beauty, but more by the infinite details found within a flower.  In the book’s introduction Mr. Penn says, “In fact, the reader will probably note my preference for flowers considerably after they have passed that point of perfection, when they have already begun spotting and browning and twisting on their way back to the earth.” 

Presented against white backgrounds, we aren’t romanced by the flower, but we are mesmerized by each flower’s uniqueness, by its honesty, and by its complexities.  To me, it looks like an exploration of light through the medium of a flower – how the light changes the colour, texture, and structure of its subject.  His fascination comes through and we, in turn, are fascinated.

These photographs feel like a beginning, rather than an end. They inspire me to, not only try to duplicate these efforts, but challenge me to further develop my own style.

Flowers might be the subject, but these photographs remind us how they can be seen so differently through different eyes.

Irving Penn (1917-2009) published eleven books. In 1995 he donated his archives to The Art Institute of Chicago. His work lives on through his foundation at irvingpenn.org.

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