Irving Penn: How to style your home with fashion photos

Irving Penn: how to style your home with fashion photos - collage

Nothing like a warm spring evening with a glass of wine at a gallery listening to the experts talk – about fashion and art. The two go well together. And Marlborough Gallery’s latest exhibition made me think of this: Irving Penn: How to style your home with fashion photos.

Haute couture has become almost as much part of collectable art and interior design as it has fashion.

Friday night I popped into one of London’s chicest galleries, the Marlborough in Mayfair. The late great Irving Penn was showing fashion photography over the decade and we could re-discover his story. And what a story, indeed.

Besides catching up with photography of the moment and historical displays, there there’s also the possibility of running into old friends at the gallery. And of making new friends. London is slowly buzzing back into action after lockdown and invitations are coming in. This was one of those evenings where I actually went to see, listen and learn rather than just be entertained.

Curator Susanna Brown explains Irving Penn’s fashion photography

Irving Penn Harlequin

For nearly an hour Susanna Brown spoke about his career, technique and the Penn photographs on the walls at the Marlborough. Brown has been curator of photographs at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum since 2008.

She told a riveting story. American born Penn lived from 1917-2009, a perfectionist to his fingertips and obsessive about his art and craft. And he was a minimalist. Penn would spend hours, sometimes days, preparing a single still life shoot to get the lighting and every detail absolutely right.

And then he developed the pictures himself which was another long process. Little surprise Vogue magazine and collectors snapped up his photographs.

Irving Penn: How to style your home with fashion photos

Art is a very personal choice – unlike design where there are many do’s and don’ts – and how you hang your fashion photos are a matter of choice and taste. There are many variables such as what the room looks like and the size and value of the photograph. Is it colour, large or small and what’s the messsage or feel of the image?

A photograph on on paper however high quality is likely more fragile than a canvas, so if the photo is expensive I wouldn’t put it in the kitchen or bathroom or anywhere humid. Fashion photographs are particularly fabulous in a large hallway – a stylish welcome for visitors.

For my money I’d place a super modern couture shot by a living photographer on the wall next to antique furniture – and the other way round: I’d hang a vintage shot in an ornate frame among contemporary furniture. It’s in the mix: contrast and texture and clashing periods. The image becomes a stand-out object and a conversation piece rather than an item that “fits in” with existing decor and therefore blends in and ‘disappears’.

With Irving Penn: How to style your home with fashion photos there is a clear link to Scandi style living. Penn was famously minimalist in his approach to style and photography, unlike other fashion photographers who like to add atmosphere with stylish furniture or cool, edgy scenes that clash or complement the model and the fashion.

Penn’s pictures are about the person and the clothes – not the surroundings – so his images are simple, focused and very Nordic looking even though Penn was an American.

Irving Penn New York Still Life

Photographs as wall art

There were quite a few of Penn’s famous photographs at the Marlborough – not least his iconic shot of wife Lisa in a Harlequin dress. But there was more to Irving Penn’s photography than fashion. His New York Still Life from 1947 featured alongside portraits from Africa.

The evening was one of those occasions where you learn something and enjoy at the same time. Fellow gallery goers were quite young and clearly fashionistas – creative with their clothes and colours..

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