Irving Penn, Working with a Master

Stella Kalaw is a photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area and a good friend and former classmate. She worked with Irving Penn as an intern for six months in 1998. After photography school – several of us went to NYC to work during the summer with famous photographers. Stella Kalaw and Allyson Dunn worked with Mr. Penn during that year.  That summer we made studio visits to (thanks to our friends the Interns) Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Mary Ellen Mark. It was Mr. Penn who surprised me the most when he quietly answered his own studio “service” door. Below, Stella decided to kindly share this entry from her diary. I hope students will find the entry interesting and inspiring.

June 5, 1998, New York City.

Journal entry after a two-day fashion shoot for Issey Miyake’s Fall collection at Irving Penn’s studio

Perhaps I can say that I was part of a historic collaboration between Irving Penn and Issey Miyake. The interdependence between these two artists is one of envy. Miyake creates and Penn interprets- both freely and trusting of each other’s vision. The images that Penn captures on film pays respect to Miyake’s clothes. The space composition, lighting and model’s gestures accentuate the beauty, uniqueness and artistry of Miyake.

Never once did Mr. Miyake visit New York to see Penn photograph his collection. He gives him ABSOLUTE freedom and trust. The relationship between these two men is simply admirable. Perhaps Mark Holborn in his introduction to Penn’s upcoming book, “Irving Penn Regards the Work of Issey Miyake” aptly describes this collaboration.

Seeing a master at work is, no doubt, an incredible experience. Being around him during those two days were awe-inspiring. He had presence- he had a commanding presence, ever so respectful to every person that was part of the shoot. Penn is simply an observer- he never stops thinking…he is constantly fascinated and interested… his focus, drive are so intense yet he’s equally subdued.

There’s stillness in a Penn shoot. 10-15 people are on set yet all you hear is Penn—directing and the shutter clicking. He looks at her from head to toe, every detail mentally noted. He gestures her to follow his fingers with her eyes—first going right then to the left. He motions her to straighten up, putting both hands to his chest then one hand sliding up his neck.

He knows what image he wants to capture yet he has room for the unexpected—
“Stay there- that’s lovely,” he would always say when he suddenly finds the right moment.

“See something.”

“ Yes- there! Hold, please”

“Let’s start from scratch.”

After every shoot, Penn claps and everyone joins him. “Thank you!” he says to the model. He smiles and retreats to his office.

One thought on “Irving Penn, Working with a Master

  1. Thank you for sharing your friend, Stella’s, observations of an Irving Penn shoot. To know how someone, especially one of the great photographers, works is revealing and educational. I only wish that Stella had told us more. Thank you for including this.


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