The Photography Legends come back on the blog this week with Irving Penn, one of the most important and influential photographers of the 20th century with a career that spanned almost seventy years.
He was a master of black-and-white photography and worked on professional and artistic projects across multiple genres. However, he was best known for his fantastic fashion and portraits photographs and his work as one of Vogue magazine's top photographers for more than sixty years.
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About the Artist
Irving Penn was born in 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey to immigrant parents. Penn attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts from 1934–38, where he studied drawing, painting, graphics, industrial arts, and wasexpose to magazines, exhibitions, architecture, and photography.
Penn started to work for two years as a freelance designer, making his first amateur photographs, and taking various art director jobs. In 1941, Penn went to Mexico to paint, traveling through the American South and taking photographs along the way.
When Penn returned to New York, he was offered a position as an associate in the Vogue Art Department in which he first worked on layout for the magazine before trying photography.
In 1943, Alexander Liberman, the new art director at Vogue, recognized in Penn's work "a mind, and an eye that knew what it wanted to see." He encouraged Penn to begin taking the photographs that he envisioned, launching a long and fruitful career as well as a collaboration that transformed modern photography.
Penn continued to work at Vogue throughout his career, photographing covers, portraits, still lifes, fashion, and photographic essays. Penn's preference was to photograph in the controlled environment of a studio, where he could trim away anything that was not essential to his compositions and hone in on his subjects.
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In the 1950s, Penn founded his own studio in New York and began making advertising photographs. Over the years, Penn's list of clients grew to include General Foods, De Beers, Issey Miyake, and Clinique.
Penn was among the first photographers to pose subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop, and he effectively used this simplicity. Expanding his austere studio surroundings, Penn constructed a set of upright angled backdrops, to form a stark, acute corner. Subjects photographed with this technique included Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, W. H. Auden, and Igor Stravinsky.
"I found pictures trying to show peoples in their natural circumstances generally disappointing [but] feel secure in the artificial circumstances of the studio [accepting] for myself a stylization that I felt was more valid than a simulated naturalism,"
He also undertook some major personal projects, notably photographing fleshy nudes at close range in the studio and experimenting with their printing to "break through the slickness of the image." This new approach to photography and the resulting images were deemed too provocative and not shown for decades.
His repertoire also includes ethnographic photographs from around the world thanks to his many travels for Vogue between 1964 and 1971, taking him to Japan, Crete, Spain, Dahomey, Nepal, Cameroon, New Guinea, and Morocco.
On these trips, Penn was increasingly free to focus on what truly interested him: making portraits of people in natural light. It allowed him to understand the crucial role of a neutral environment to encourage the respectful exchange he was interested in.
Penn's creativity continued to flourish during the last decades of his life. His innovative portraits, still life, fashion, and beauty photographs continued to appear regularly in Vogue. His studio was busy with magazine, advertising, and personal work, as well as printing and exhibition projects. Penn eagerly embraced new ideas, constructing cameras to photograph debris on the sidewalk, experimenting with a moving band of light during long exposures, or with digital color printing.
On a personal note, Penn was sent to Paris to photograph the haute couture collections for Vogue in 1950. He worked in a daylight studio and was graced with an extraordinary model named Lisa Fonssagrives. Born in Sweden, she was one of the most sought-after fashion models of the time, with a sophisticated understanding of form and posture. Penn later recalled: “When Lisa came in, I saw her and my heart beat fast, and there was never any doubt that this was it.” They were married in London in September 1950.
In 1995, Irving Penn donated his archive to the Art Institute of Chicago. With that gift, the museum became one of the world's leading repositories for photographs by Penn and material about his life and work.
Penn died aged 92 on October 7, 2009 at his home in Manhattan. During his lifetime, he established The Irving Penn Foundation, which grew out of the studio and whose devotion to Penn's legacy is derived from contact with his remarkable spirit.
To see more of Irving's work:
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