Penn’s work reached an early apotheosis in the ’40s and ’50s, those post-war years which W. H. Auden termed the “Age of Anxiety,” and Penn’s eye was correspondingly exacting, almost existentialist. By placing his subjects in isolation against a plain gray painted backdrop or a length of black carpet, granular and dust-flecked, he came as close to the truth as he could, and in the most direct of terms. “The photographic process for me,” he once explained, “is primarily simplification and elimination.”
Though he would only start on them in earnest in 1967, his flower pictures were no exception. Like a taxonomist identifying a rare and exotic species, his rigorous observation allowed his audience to see a rose as a rose but from a new angle, a fresh and particular point of view—a Penn portrait, perhaps.
American Vogue commissioned nine annual portfolios of pictures devoted to one flower. These were a Christmas gift to readers, published each December until 1975 (though the holding image of that final year’s survey, a dandelion, was, if you were horticulturally inclined, more of a weed).
The inaugural feature was “Lust for Tulips,” a selection photographed in Penn’s Fifth Avenue penthouse studio. On “Cottage Tulip (Sorbet),” the drops of water (probably used to refresh the bloom under the glare of Penn’s studio lamps) catch the light, the head itself having transformed itself into a fizzing, popping explosion of color. Raising photography to the level of painting was Penn’s lifelong motivation, and, in the end, one of his greatest achievements.
Poppies were next for 1968. A set-up of oriental poppies, three in a line, were beginning to lose their petals—one, in fact, completely denuded and sheltering behind its neighbor like a fashion model in lesser hands suddenly caught unawares in the spotlight. Peonies, orchids, roses, lilies, and begonias followed year on year, genus on genus…
Penn’s approach was dispassionate. He did not seek beauty for beauty’s sake, as the gradually disintegrating trio of poppies might attest. “I can claim no special knowledge,” he wrote in the introduction to Flowers, “that the reader might believe he has a right to expect of someone making a book about flowers.” He added that his delight in such ignorance allowed him to take pride in form and color and to remain unimpeded by considerations of rarity, or, as he put it, “tied to the convention that a flower must be photographed at its moment of unblemished and nubile perfection.”