Inside Irving Penn’s New York photo studio in the 1950s

Robert Freson assisted Irving Penn for 13 years – here he recalls how the late American photographer distilled the souls of his subjects into gelatin silver prints


After the Second World War, Belgian photographer Robert Freson arrived in New York with a suitcase and only $100 in his pocket, ready to start a new life with his American wife. At the suggestion of his mother-in-law, Freson took his portfolio to a building on Lexington Avenue where many Condé Nast photographers had studios. He met the head of VOC Studios, who was suitably impressed, but told Freson in no uncertain terms, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Suffice to say she did. Two Months Later American vogue sent Freson a telegram asking him to contact him about a possible position which turned out to be the job of a lifetime. legendary photographer Irving Penn had just returned from Peru and needed someone to print the portraits he had done in Cusco – the rest is history.

Now 95, Freson has donated 16 photographs by Penn to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art that demonstrate the photographer’s genius as a portrait, fashion and still life photographer. Whether photographing luminaries such as Pablo Picasso, Miles Davis and Georgia O’Keeffe, Balenciaga’s latest looks or New Guinea’s Asaro “mud men”, Penn has distilled the soul of its subjects in gelatin silver prints.

From 1949 to 1962, Freson worked closely with Penn as a photo assistant and then studio manager, as the photographer reached new heights. vogue Art director Alexander Liberman recognized in Penn “a mind and an eye that knew what he wanted to see” and began sending him around the world on portrait and fashion assignments.

Freson was Penn’s right-hand man at this time. “We went to quite a few places in Europe to collect twice a year. He always wanted me to come with him and left the other people in New York,” Freson told AnOther. “Penn was very professional, private and generous. He was fully aware that I was looking to eventually become a photojournalist and he supported that. He let me use the studio alone in the evenings and on weekends. He was extremely intelligent and very restrained in demonstrating his knowledge. He was a good listener and always let people talk.

Penn’s ability to stand still and observe made him an accomplished portrait painter. “He had his own method: very isolated in studios or sometimes outdoors,” recalls Freson. “It was just Penn, the subject and me. No unnecessary sounds. He was concentrating talking to them very peacefully while sitting on a high stool behind the camera.

But sometimes, the decor can vibrate with an energy of its own. Visiting Picasso’s studio in Cannes in 1957 for a shoot, Freson remembers the incredible vitality exuded by the artist and his work. “It was like you had a battery and you were charged by it,” Freson says. “We had that with Francis Bacon, TS Eliot and many others too. They radiated creativity and intelligence, and you couldn’t help but soak it up like a sponge. I was quite young and had a lot to learn. I never would have been exposed to a lot of things if I hadn’t worked with Penn.

Freson, who later worked for Squire, National geographicand the Sunday time, learned a tremendous amount from helping Penn for 13 years. Freson credits Penn’s training as a painter with helping to shape the artist’s approach to the photographic medium. “Penn was very aware of the chiaroscuro quality of light,” he says. “Most of the work was done with daylight, but sometimes he duplicated that kind of light in the studio with artificial light so we could work any time of the day.”

Using the camera like a painter uses a brush, Penn was always open-minded and ready to experiment. “He was very ambitious to discover new methods as well as old practices of photography,” recalls Freson. “He was going back to the beginning to explore the old ways that had been phased out by then because they weren’t needed anymore.”

Penn’s innovative approaches not only advanced the medium, but made it highly sought after by advertisers wishing to follow its lead. “Agencies usually come to photographers to ask them to do a project that they’ve already developed and sold to a client,” Freson explains. “But with Penn it was the other way around. They would come and talk to him, and Penn would make a little sketch showing them what he would do. They reported that to the client, who said, “Fantastic! Let’s do it.'”

60 years after leaving the studio to work as a photojournalist, Freson says Penn’s photographs continue to inspire him. Whether it’s images of Marcel Duchamp, Jacob Lawrence and Louis Armstrong, street cleaner or street photographer, Penn’s images only get better with time.

“Penn’s photography was very honest,” Freson says. “Penn knew all about the people he was photographing and was able to carry on the conversation to get people to react to him. Then he would photograph them. Once he established the circumstances to do the photograph, he went there. At some point, it crossed over into the reality of the person behind the facade – and that moment stands forever.

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