Yet there was a vein of humane insight in his work, too. He loved showing people caught in corners, and though this was partly a formal device for breaking the fatuous foregroundversus-background opposition of the usual magazine photograph, it also conveyed a quiet edge of claustrophobia, as if his people had been backed into traps of their own devising.
Penn’s subject—as in “Woman with Long Black Neck (Jean Patchett),” New York, 1951—is not performance but inner poise, and the dignity of appearances became his central theme. His work is a memorial of a specially privileged era, where the duties of a fashion photographer and the ambitions of an artist could coexist in one serenely realized surface, an age that in retrospect seems to have been one of fine silver, coolly applied. ♦