Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn. ©1940 by Anton Bruehl.
It is difficult to imagine the history of fashion photography without thinking of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn. The image of the woman perilously hanging off the Eiffel Tower by Blumenfeld, the mermaid in the Rochas dress by Penn, the sleek, svelte, Swedish blonde greyhound with painfully high cheekbones and aquiline nose, shoulders rounded, pelvis tucked in, the feet posed perpendicular with a well-turned ankle… the role model of the chic ’50s woman, propelled by an elegant dynamism that we can only look at today with longing. Gone the days of a finely crafted gown, of an entire day to do one photograph, of the woman who can best do her own makeup (“a makeup artist has never touched my face”). Gone the days of eccentric fashion editors who use words like dreamy and divine and expound on the wonders of the little black dress. Gone the notion of the well-turned ankle.
Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn does not dwell on her work in the past, is even reluctant to speak of it. The very different approach to fashion photography during those golden years she does not venture to judge as being better or worse than the work of today, but simply calls it different. She believes in the future. She is a progressive woman whose background lies solidly rooted in the arts. It explains the intelligence of her movement.
One is tempted to talk in superlatives. A career as a model that lasted over 20 years has been kind to Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn. She is ageless. The same cat eyes sparkle now when talking of her work as a sculptress. To think of such enormous bronzes coming from such an elfin-like creature is inconceivable.
In the ensuing text, we talk about her work during an era when artists used fashion and photography to create timeless images, as a painter uses canvas and paint to make a painting.
David Seidner How did you initially get from Stockholm to Paris?
Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn Originally I went to Berlin to study dance with Mary Wigman. She had a sort of comprehensive art school where we not only studied dance but studio art, art history, and everything pertaining to art in general. My parents were very supportive of the arts, in fact my childhood vacations were spent driving through Europe with them, visiting museums. My father painted and encouraged us a great deal, me and my sisters. My mother too was very creative. She made all our clothes and created such an atmosphere of magic and beauty that all throughout this enchanted childhood I wondered how I could possibly do anything better than what I was living and make something of myself. I painted and sculpted and danced as a child so when I heard about Mary Wigman’s school, it sounded so ideal that I wrote to her and she wrote back asking me to come. So my parents sent me. Then I returned to Stockholm and opened up a school of dance. There was a very well known choreographer in Sweden at that time called Astrid Malmborg. She invited me to participate in an international competition in Paris and we went and won some kind of honorary mention. I immediately fell in love with the city and decided to stay and study other forms of dance besides modern, so I enrolled in ballet classes with a Russian woman called Princess Egorova…a fantastic teacher. Mia Slavenska was in the class too; she danced so beautifully! What an inspiration. About that time I met my first husband, Fernand Fonssagrives, who was also a dancer, and we went together to people’s homes to give private lessons. One day we were coming home after a very long day, and in the elevator (we lived on the 10th floor), a man told me that he was a photographer and asked if I would like to model hats for him. I was terribly shy but flattered that he would want me to pose. I was so young and naive. Anyway, I did these pictures with this man called Willy Maywald, and my husband took them up to Vogue. They asked me to do a test with Horst and I arrived terrified. I had never seen a fashion magazine, I didn’t know what fashion was. I made all my own clothes and I remember the suit I was wearing, dark brown wool, and I arrived so frightened with my hair long and wild and completely unmanageable. No one knew what to do with my hair. But it was my hands that troubled me most; what to do with one’s own hands while posing. And even though Horst himself was so young and inexperienced, and made me feel so confident, I still had no idea of what to do with myself.
DS How did you learn to move the way you did? Was it natural or were you imitating things you saw in other women?
LFP After that test with Horst I went straight to the Louvre and studied how differently dressed people did different things. Especially in evening clothes. The next day, Vogue asked me to do a sitting and we had the most exquisite gowns by Alix and Lelong. It must have been about 1936, or 7. I would imagine what kind of woman would wear the gown I was wearing and assume different characters. I would look at myself in the dressing room mirror before going on the set and instinctively try to solve the photographer’s problems. I would look at the cut of the dress and try different poses to see how it fell best;, how the light would enhance it, and basically try to create a line the way one starts a drawing. I would objectify myself and become more of a director than an actress. I became this girl and not Lisa Fonssagrives. So that when I saw the contacts I would think, There that girl stands correctly, there she looks awkward…The photographer of course would have a lot to do with how one moved. Huene and Hoot created a kind of reality within a reality. Often they constructed sets for the type of woman who would wear the clothes to be photographed. There was time to prepare and time to work, and the sense of collaboration and camaraderie was marvelous. It was also a kind of game, that exchange that takes place through the lens. That is why I hate the word “shooting.” It implies something so one-sided and impersonal. It was never a “shooting,” but a sitting or a seance. I was terribly serious about being responsible and even studied photography to learn what the problems might be. I would stand before the camera on a set and concentrate my energy until I could sense it radiate into the lens and feel the photographer had the picture. It was very hard work! There were no strobe lights in those days, but very hot spots, often live thousand watts on either side of you and the exposures were long. You could feel the sweat trickling down your face and the assistant would come over and hand you a towel. In fact I remember one time in New York in the ’50s when I was modeling fur coats in the summer. And there were no air conditioned studios then. It was so hot that I just fainted. And they propped me right back up and I went straight back to work. Can you imagine what would happen today if a model fainted on a set?
DS The approach was certainly much more serious then. Did you think of yourselves as making more than just a fashion photograph? Was the idea of making art ever present?
LFP It was never an issue. But making a beautiful picture is making art, isn’t it? Especially with Huene, one really had the impression of creating something. He was very considerate, George Huene. He would set tile lights up before one arrived on the set, using a stand-in. So one was led from the dressing room onto a very dark, dramatic set with a column or stairway or some other greek-inspired element, and there was silence. It was like some mystic ritual. He spoke very little and in a very low voice and there was only one assistant, who moved like a cat. No one was allowed on the set in those days, not even an editor.
DS Wasn’t Fernand Fonssagrives a photographer?
LFP Yes he was. Just when I began modeling, he had a back accident and had to stop dancing. I gave him a Rolleiflex and he started to take pictures. Between the collections, there were endless vacations and we spent a lot of time traveling. Fernand photographed me constantly and sold the photographs to magazines all over Europe. In those days, a picture did not have to be assigned to be published. If it was beautiful the magazines would run it.
DS How did you end up in New York?
LFP We had taken a trip to Sweden and were on our way to New York when war was declared, so we decided to stay in America. Eventually my marriage dissolved and I began taking photographs for Ladies’ Home Journal. I lived in one of those big old apartments on Central Park West and had a darkroom where I did all my developing and printing. In fact, when I met Irving [Penn], we were both doing experiments with ferrous cyanide to whiten the image and dissolve the outline of form. Eventually, after I remarried, my darkroom became a nursery, and all my prints had to be ordered. They were constantly late for the assignments so I finally gave it up.
DS And you continued modeling?
LFP Yes, mostly for American Vogue. This was in the early ‘50s and by the mid-’50s, I began designing clothes. At first it was just an occasional dress for one of my husband’s advertising campaigns, but then people began to special order evening gowns, and suddenly I found myself designing a line of at-home clothes for Lord and Taylor. Eventually I did sportswear for them too. This lasted a good six years. Eventually we had to move from Central Park West because they were tearing down the building, and since the dining room was my atelier, and I wasn’t allowed to have a business in our new apartment, I just stopped…wanted to do something else. I began spending more and more time in my sculpture studio in our house in Long Island, where previously, we had only spent weekends. I also enrolled in the Art Students League to hone my drawing skills. Finally we moved completely to Long Island, so I could spend more time in the studio without having to commute.
DS When did you first return to Paris after the war?
LFP In 1950 to do the collections with my husband. We had the most beautiful daylight studio on the Rue de Sevres. We’ve been back to Paris almost every year since.
DS Weren’t you petrified when you hung off the Eiffel Tower for Blumenfeld?
LFP No, I was too young and too strong. I was a dancer and a skier and very athletic. But I was frightened on another sitting when I had to parachute from a very high exhibition tower.
DS What a contradiction in terms. You presented to the world such a sophisticated, almost decadent image of yourself, and you are in reality very wholesome.
LFP I know. Whenever I would come home after a vacation, rested, Vogue used to say to me: “We can’t use you for at least 10 days, you’re much too healthy looking.”
DS And did you work with Blumenfeld in New York too?
LFP Yes, in the ’50s. He was marvelous. He made you feel so beautiful. He used to hold my face in his hands like some fragile flower, so gentle, to pose it in the right light. He lived and worked at the Gainsborough Studios at 222 Central Park South, where I had lived when I first arrived in New York. It was easy in those days to find apartments like that, and would you believe there was never any problem finding parking? In fact, you could pull your car right up in front of your door, and just leave it there overnight.
1 Mary Wigman was a pioneer of modern dance in the spirit of Martha Graham.
2 Willy Maywald, a fashion photographer for the houses of Dior, Fath, Griffe, and Jacques Heim. He also worked for Harper’s Bazaar.