Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Karlie Kloss and Other Stories From 30 Years in Fashion’s Trenches

In her new book Stoppers, Phyllis Posnick looks back on a celebrated career creating some of fashion’s most indelible images with some of its most beloved creatives.

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Photo by Irving Penn. Courtesy of Abrams Books.

Phyllis Posnick has spent nearly 30 years working with the world’s greatest photographers to create images that transcend simple portraiture or still lifes. As Vogue’s executive fashion editor, it’s been her charge to illustrate its beauty and health articles, as well as portraits of cultural and political personalities, with striking pictures that are full of wit and originality.

Photo by Getty Images.

Photo by Getty Images.

Alexander Liberman, the legendary editorial director of Condé Nast, called those kinds of images “stoppers,” and such is fittingly the title of Posnick’s lush new book, out this week from Abrams. Just as enthralling as the photos are the wild stories behind them—page 118 hilariously recalls the time Posnick had to do a fitting on a chicken with the help of a French butcher—making for a book that is at once a stopper and a page-turner.

You dedicate Stoppers to Irving Penn, whom you worked with for over 20 years and on over 400 photographs… He never saw anything in a literal way. He challenged me to the minute he stopped working; he challenged everybody, hair and makeup, too. He wanted to go beyond the obvious for a picture, and that’s the most important thing I learned from him. Penn had a different way of seeing things. He wasn’t conventional. He trained as an artist. He was truly one of the most intelligent, creative, unique people I’ve ever met.

Photo by Irving Penn. Courtesy of Abrams Books.

There are great stories in the book. One of my favorites was a shoot you did with Penn and a couple of monkeys, and he’s directing them like models: “Hold the position—don’t move!” That was funny. The chimp kept throwing the coconut on the floor. There were a lot of memorable moments with Penn. He had very high standards. He demanded the real thing. There’s another story of having to track down a real chastity belt for a feature on contraception. Penn wanted to shoot it, but only if it was an original—and Oh, the creepy guys I met trying to find one…Thankfully I wasn’t young or I’d have been much more afraid.

I want to talk about how you conceive a shoot, because I read that you don’t like to use moodboards. I don’t like to work with a moodboard. Once in a while I have an image that I found at a photography auction or something. But I find that if you show moodboards to photographers—or hair and makeup artists—that’s what they do; they’re prisoners of what they’ve been shown. If, instead, I have a conversation, and say, ‘This is the idea, these are the clothes…’ You’d be surprised what people come back with when they’re not guided! Of course, sometimes it makes it more difficult because sometimes in giving them that kind of freedom, they’ll go off in a way I didn’t expect.

Which brings me to your work with Steven Klein, which is very out there. He and I did a story about fillers, and how all these women are starting to look alike, so I thought we should shoot twins. Klein wanted dolls, and so we decided to dress them alike, but the shoot went into another direction. Anna [Wintour] loved it. It was such a bizarre shoot but she loved it—she said what made it work was that the women looked real. That’s the thing about these pictures, the model still has to look like a Vogue woman. That’s what makes them work. Otherwise, they would just be weird.

Photo by Steven Klein. Courtesy of Abrams Books.

These are… less weird. Exactly. I’m always concerned that the pictures aren’t going to be well-received. But usually those are the best pictures because I’m taking a chance.

__Helmut Newton loved a weird pic.__ Helmut was very funny; he had a great sense of humor. He loved to make the readers upset and angry. He would be upset if they weren’t!

Photo by Helmut Newton. Courtesy of Abrams Books.

In the book, Tim Walker talks about how you taught him to embrace mistakes. That imperfections are good—especially when illustrating beauty. When you’re doing a picture the tendency is to make everything perfect. Penn always liked something a little off. You don’t make that happen, it happens on its own. Branches fall to the floor—leave them! Take for instance the Comme des Garçons image that Tim and I did. Normally you’d take out the cable and his initials which you can see on the apple box. But it’s those little things that give the picture a little something, a little life. The picture wouldn’t be totally different without them, but my point is, you don’t strive to make it super perfect.

Photo by Tim Walker. Courtesy of Abrams Books.

Are there any young photographer you’d like to work with? Jamie Hawkesworth and Tyrone Lebon. I did a portrait and beauty picture with Jamie. I love his pictures: he’s modern, but in his approach, he’s very old-school. His pictures are well thought out, and he uses film.

What about models? I still love Karlie [Kloss]. She was a dancer and when I do these spa trips with her she becomes more than a model. She has something personal invested in it, and she gives so much. She and Caroline Trentini understand the strangeness of these pictures. Some of these models don’t want to do them because they won’t look pretty, and that’s fine, but Karlie and Trentini will go anywhere for the picture. They have no inhibitions. They get what we’re trying to do and they take it further. That’s something that new models don’t understand yet; it’s a learned thing, I have to say though that Karlie knew it from the beginning.

How fabulous! By the way, that you get to go to all these amazing spas around the world. I hope you take advantage of it—it’s well-deserved! I got a massage on my last one—it was the first time!

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