Irving Penn

American Photographer

Born: June 16, 1917
Plainfield, New Jersey
Died: October 7, 2009
New York City, New York
A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it; it is in one word, effective.

Summary of Irving Penn

Simple, sophisticated, and potent as a dry martini, Irving Penn's iconic covers for Vogue Magazine showcased the clean lines and tapered waists of Postwar Paris and New York, and transformed the aesthetic of the fashion industry. Penn removed everything from the shot but the clothing and the model. His dramatically lit figures are essentially living, breathing sculptures. Inspired by Surrealism, Modern dance, and film noir, his images register as provocative visual statements, not just commercial photographs. With a firm grasp on the geometry of the body, the psychology of consumerism, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of art, Penn lifted fashion photography into the realm of high art.


Progression of Art


American South

Penn's earliest series of photographs chronicles an early cross-country voyage through the American South. Penn was not yet thinking of himself as an art photographer. He had fled the fashion industry and planned to settle in the South as a folk artist. In retrospect, however, these documentary images in the spirit of the great Walker Evans foreshadow Penn's ultimate destiny as an equally great American photographer, but in a vein fundamentally at odds with photojournalism. This photograph is also known by the title Sign with Child's Head Missing, Louisiana. It is an odd photograph, one almost certainly deliberately and carefully staged. On the hood of a beat-up car sits a framed image that once hung in a diner or a hardware store, advertising a product. The original advertisement has been damaged, so that the central subject - a baby - is missing its head. A couple gazes adoringly at their decapitated child, and the whole scene is positioned so as to appear as if it is taking place inside the car. On the horizon are the columns and roofs of a traditional southern home. An American Dream turned nightmare, the image foretells Penn's subversive approach to image-making. It also expresses some of the anxiety Penn may have been feeling as an outsider (the child of Russian Jewish immigrants) traveling through the Deep South.

Gelatin silver print sheet - Smithsonian Museum of American Art


Fall Fashion Still Life, for Vogue Cover

"The photographic process for me, is primarily simplification and elimination" Penn once said. Evidence of this appears in his very first Vogue cover, the first of more than 150 over the course of his career. Women's fashion magazine covers, then as now, generally depicted a model decked out in the latest style of the season. Penn's cover leaves out the model. Artfully arranged objects on a table tell the story of a fashionable lady that readers of Vogue implicitly aspire to be. Her chic urban accessories (satchel, grey scarf, white gloves, and the oversized cocktail ring - placed tantalizingly close to the edge of the table) are things one might wear while out and about on an errand in Manhattan. What is not here is just as important as what is, allowing the viewer to fill in with his or her own fantasy. This anticipates even more radical developments in Penn's style down the road.

Photomechanical Print - The Art Institute of Chicago


Truman Capote

Few, if any, precedents for this pose exist in the history of portraiture. This masterful, claustrophobic portrait of Truman Capote is one of the so-called "corner portraits" that formed the basis for Penn's emerging reputation as a fine art photographer. Two slanted walls surround the American writer who is scrunched down into a chair with his hands shoved into the pockets of his trench coat. Though the chopped-up space and pose do not seem natural or comfortable, they feel immediate, even intimate, in ways a conventional pose might not be. Penn understood that cornering his subjects heightened the psychological intensity, stating, "A niche closed people in. Some people felt secure in the tight spot, some felt trapped. It was a kind of truth serum. The way they looked made them quickly available to the camera." Among Penn's other subjects were Spencer Tracy, Georgia O'Keeffe, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Rubenstein, Gypsy Rose Lee, and countless other luminaries from a broad array of disciplines, from artists to film stars. He used a similar framing of the corner, but allowed sitters to pose with a few different items such as a chair or a dark carpet.

Gelatin Silver Print - The Irving Penn Foundation


Summer Sleep

Before Penn, art photography and commercial photography were two distinctly different fields. Penn brought them closer together. This photograph was published as an illustration of an article in Vogue's June 1949 issue. A fan blows quietly on a woman who has fallen asleep. Near her are a book, a peach, a cup of tea, and a fly-swatter. The flies on the screen are so much in focus one has the urge to flick them away. The image in the background fades out, an excellent metaphor for the loss of consciousness.

Like his Fall fashion cover of 1943, the subject is essentially a pretext for a meditation on color and form. The figure is incorporated as a sculptural element in a still life. The bent arm and head form a graceful triangle, and are surrounded by other pleasing shapes. While specialized knowledge of art history is unnecessary to appreciate this image, Penn's awareness of it is evident in the screen over the surface, a sly nod to the modernist grid, and the dozing woman - an homage to Vermeer and other great 17th-century masters who painted the subject. Penn's photograph also draws deeply on Surrealist imagery, particularly that of Man Ray - whose still lifes often incorporated parts of the female body, and Salvador Dalí (whom Penn portrayed in one of his famous "corner portraits"), who included ants and other insects in his paintings. In comparison though, Penn shows a much lighter touch in his use of such imagery than the Surrealists who were more inclined to shock their audiences.

Dye-transfer print - The Art Institute of Chicago


Veiled Face (Evelyn Tripp)

Taken from below, this photograph showcases the profile of fashion model Evelyn Tripp. Her veil enhances the almost porcelain perfection of her features. Like the screen in Summer Sleep (taken the same year), or the cocktail ring that appears at the edge of Penn's first cover for Vogue, the veil near the surface of the picture seems to dare us to reach out and touch it.
This trademark device of zeroing in on one detail - in this case the veil - and letting the focus soften behind it was one of Penn's trademark moves. It curried favor with fashion designers from Christian Dior to Issey Miyake, and succeeded in securing the photographer a permanent spot at Vogue.

Gelatin Silver Print - Smithsonian Museum of American Art


Nude No. 150

Nude No 150 depicts the lower half of a female body shaped differently from the ideal that appears in Penn's fashion shoots. The triangular thighs seem to sprout directly from the spherical abdomen. The overexposed negative creates an almost abstract image comprised of shapes and sinuous lines closer to a drawing or a sculpture. Penn would soon use this device in his fashion photographs. While supporting himself as a fashion photographer, Penn engaged in side projects that interested him as an artist. Earthly Bodies series was among the first of these side projects. At work, Penn's job was to emphasize and exaggerate the ideal female form. Earthly Bodies presents us with an antidote to these "heavenly" bodies Penn was obliged to photograph on a daily basis, resisting this ideal.

When Penn finally exhibited the series at Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1980, the response was not warm. Some critics detected a troubling detachment that seemed overly erotic, bordering on fetishistic. Penn argued they were not this at all, and were in fact a collaboration between him and professional full-figured artist's models who "were comfortable with their bodies. It helped that their personalities were generally relaxed and uncomplaining, and that they were not apprehensive of close examination by the camera. The relationship between us was professional, without a hint of sexual response." He continued to believe the Earthly Bodies series was some of his best work.

Gelatin Silver Print - The Irving Penn Foundation


Black & White Cover (Jean Patchett)

After a trip to Paris, Penn revised his approach to the fashion shoot, radically limiting his form and palette, and announcing something new, both in his own work and in creative fashion photography as a whole. In Black & White Cover (the first black and white cover for Vogue since 1932) Penn used a discarded theater curtain to erase the environment for the figure. Dressed by Christian Dior, fashion model Jean Patchett strikes an enigmatic pose akin to modern dance or pantomime. Penn's compositional restraint plays up the drama of the forms: the horizontal brim of her hat; the black neckerchief tilting to the right, and the white scarf splitting the figure down the middle create a flawless, and daringly abstract, composition. Penn produced very sharp lines in his photographs that were part of his unique signature.

Platinum Palladium Print - The Art Institute of Chicago


Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn

Penn took multiple photographs of his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives (a supermodel before the term existed) on the couple's trip to Morocco in 1951. Published in Vogue the same year, this series gave rise to a subgenre on which the industry continues to rely heavily today: the exotic fashion shoot. Amidst richly-patterned pillows and fabric textiles displaying Arabic text, Fonssagrives's attire - a wide sash, wide-legged pants, and bare midriff - are not what one would see a local woman wearing, but a fantasy inspired by Moroccan menswear and belly dancing. Ethnographic accuracy is not the point here. The image uses non-Western elements to engage the Western imagination. Fonssagrives's come-hither pose recalls the Odalisque (the exotic harem woman who appears in the work of Ingres, Delacroix, and Matisse). Penn continued traveling to exotic cities around the world, shooting models on site. This prevented him from becoming bored, and allowed him to indulge his flair for photojournalism and portraiture.


Cigarette No. 37

Penn experimented with photographic and printing processes throughout his career. The Platinum-Palladium print process, an old photographic method he revived, enabled Penn to achieve the level of tonal precision seen here.

Cigarette No. 37 is part of a series of cigarette butts shot at close range using a macro lens in the 1970s. In the absence of the context where one might usually find it (an ashtray, a gutter, or the street), the everyday form becomes large and mysterious, like an ancient ruin. This series inspired a larger investigation of detritus found on the street, including disintegrated work gloves, banana peels, and chewing gum. Entitled Street Material, this whole genre of his work was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977. This solidified Penn's reputation as a serious artist, not merely a fashion photographer.

Platinum Palladium Print - The Art Institute of Chicago


Mouth (for L'Oreal)

In an advertisement for a L'Oreal lipstick campaign of 1986, Penn isolated the most relevant detail of the subject and shot it at close range (one of Penn's go-to moves). Using a dye transfer print process, Penn developed the face in black and white and confined the vivid color to the center, displaying the full spectrum of colors in L'Oreal's spring lipstick line in a configuration resembling a painter's palette. Not only does this allow the potential customer to choose from an array of shades, but the application of color is essentially an abstract painting. Unconventional strokes of deep purple and vibrant yellow go outside the lines. Implicitly L'Oreal's new product is more than just a lipstick. It's a form of personal expression, on the brink of art. The visual point, made quickly and unforgettably, encapsulates everything that made Penn great, both as an artist and an advertiser. At this point in his career, Penn was also clearly thinking of his advertising as art. He published these prints as a limited edition for sale to contemporary art collectors.

Dye Transfer Print - The Irving Penn Foundation

Biography of Irving Penn

Early Period and Education

Irving Penn was born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1917 to a Russian Jewish family. His father, Harry, was a watchmaker and his mother, Sonia, a nurse. He and his younger brother, Arthur, both attended public school. Arthur later became a movie director, directing hit films such as The Chase (1966) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Penn never took a formal course in photography, which was not yet considered a fine art, focusing instead on painting, drawing, and industrial design as a student at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now known as the University of the Arts), where he studied from 1934 to 1938. During these years, he viewed himself as an aspiring painter.

Penn's teacher and mentor, Alexey Brodovich was a particularly large and important influence. An emigre from Russia by way of France, Brodovich informed his students of the latest avant-garde European art styles, especially Surrealism. His favorite expression (and call upon his students and colleagues) was étonnez-moi! (astonish me!). Brodovich was a powerhouse of influence and connections; he was one of the conduits through which many European ideas travelled to New York before and during World War II. Penn attended a class Brodovich taught in Philadelphia's Museum School of Industrial Art. Penn was one of the first to take the experimental course, "Design Laboratory", which introduced students to contemporary culture and technology as important sources for graphic design.

During his last two summers as a student, Penn worked as an assistant to Brodovitch at one of America's oldest fashion magazines, Harper's Bazaar. After graduating in 1938, Penn moved to New York City and continued to work for Harper's and other creative organizations as a freelance designer and illustrator. He bought his first camera, a Rolleiflex, with money he earned from Harper's. On the streets of New York and Philadelphia, Penn experimented with photography, taking shots of industrial buildings and window displays. Brodovitch selected some of these photographs for publication in Harper's Bazaar, giving him a foothold in the world of New York fashion photography. In 1940, Penn was offered the position of Director of Advertising at Saks Fifth Avenue, a graphic design position that he quit less than 2 years later, disillusioned with the industry. But even in his early 20s, Penn had a director-level position in a major corporation.

Early Training

After leaving his position in advertising, Penn travelled through the southern United States and Mexico. He had never abandoned painting, and his aim was to continue and be inspired by Folk Art, especially that of the American South, which had long interested him. On his way down to Mexico, Penn used his camera to document his voyage. He then set up a studio just outside of Mexico City and began painting. After a year, however, he realized that painting was not his strong suit. He returned to New York with a suitcase full of negatives from the various exploratory photos he took on his travels. He explored various modes of photography on the road including following the examples of Eugene Atget's explorations, Henri Cartier-Bresson's street photography and photojournalism, and Walker Evan's social documentary, and various Surrealist imagery.

Upon his return, Alexei Liberman, senior artistic editor at Vogue, offered Penn a job as assistant designer and supervisor of the magazine covers. The staff photographers refused to shoot the image Penn suggested for his first magazine cover in 1943, finding it too radical. Liberman, who disagreed, authorized Penn to stage and shoot the cover himself, and assisted him in completing it. With Liberman's continued support, Penn took a more hands-on role from then on in shooting the magazine covers, and thus charting a new path in fashion photography.

From that point on, Penn's career at Vogue was essentially uninterrupted, apart from a brief interlude as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in Europe from 1944-45. He photographed platoon headquarters, his military peers, civilians from Italy to Burma, and his favorite Italian Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (that he fortuitously met), back to Vogue, ensuring that he could resume his position at the magazine.

Mature Period

After his return to New York in 1946, Penn worked with other fashion and home magazines as well as Vogue, juggling fashion, portraiture, and ethnographic photography. Photographing indigenous peoples in their natural surroundings had long been a dream of Penn's. On Vogue's dime, he travelled to Spain, Peru, Bangladesh, Hawaii, Manila, The Philippines, India, and other exotic locations for fashion shoots. On these occasions, he also completed personal projects.

Through the 1940s, Penn insisted he had no interest in fashion photography per se. It is evident, however, that he absorbed earlier styles and approaches, breaking the rules deliberately (see, for example, his exclusion of the fashion model from his 1943 fashion cover). Penn's approach seemed to follow the famous words of French poet Charles Baudelaire: "That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity - that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment - are an essential part and characteristic of beauty."

The Vogue editors continued to give him unprecedented autonomy over his shoots, even flying him to Paris in 1949 so that he could benefit from the highbrow aesthetic of haute couture. Penn returned with what became his signature style -- carefully staged photographs of models resembling living sculpture. Lisa Fonssagrives, one of Penn's many models, married him in 1950 and two years later gave birth to a son, Tom. They remained married until her death in 1992.

By 1950, Penn was a highly-respected figure in the art and fashion worlds. These worlds still remained separate, however, and many highly respected authorities in the art world did not consider photography an art form at all. MoMA curator Edward Steichen, himself a photographer and a champion of the medium as an art form, moderated a famous discussion "What is Modern Art" in 1950, a dialogue that defined Modern art for years to come, and at which Penn defended his medium as one of the most central to the art of his time.

While fashion photography remained Penn's primary source of income, during the 1940s and '50s, he also ventured into portraiture, especially the group portrait, a genre that offered "a welcome balance to the fashion diet at Vogue". Ballet Theater and The Twelve Most Photographed Models (both from 1947) demonstrate his early mastery of the genre. In 1953, Penn opened his own studio devoted to advertising and commercial photography, and other side projects.

In the 1960s Penn, who had saved the negatives from his photoshoots over the years, was already looking for ways to preserve his artistic legacy. Looking to reprint his photographs, he experimented with emerging technology and spent long hours in the library and the studio trying to come up with the best method. In 1964, he rediscovered the platinum print, a method widely used in the 19th century, which enabled him to manipulate and enhance the richness of tone in his earlier compositions. Over the next thirty years, Penn laboriously reprinted all his new photographs and much of the earlier work as high-quality prints. These printed images created a new audience for his fashion and portrait photographs. Museums and galleries began to recognize Penn's work for its quality and formal mastery of the medium. To this audience, his alignment with the avant-garde art aesthetic was fully visible.

In 1962, Penn joined Richard Avedon, Bert Stern, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and other well-known American photographers on the faculty of the Famous Photographers School, a correspondence-based program designed to introduce students to photography as art. He continued to work as a commercial photographer, making advertisements for Estee Lauder and Clinique, and traveling on assignments to Spain, France, Portugal, Japan, Sweden, and Crete.

Later Period

In the 1970s and 1980s, Penn remained prolific, and rekindled an old artistic passion while developing a new one. Almost fifty years after abandoning his career as a painter, Penn returned to it. As a photographer, he indulged his passion for contemporary Japanese fashion. In 1983 he struck up a friendship with fashion designer Issey Miyake that quickly led to a close working relationship in which both artists thrived. Though they were very close friends, Miyake absented himself from Penn's photoshoots, demonstrating his implicit level of trust in the photographer's eye. In turn Penn paid homage to the mastery of Miyake's otherworldly designs and the geometric complexity of his clothing, using bright light and simple white backgrounds.

Up until the end of his life, Penn continued to experiment with the latest technology, as well as older methods, to create new effects with his camera. Among the final frontiers he explored involved what he called "moving light." Taking multiple exposures with a fresnel light that flashed as the subject moved, usually in a circular motion, Penn gave unprecedented autonomy and freedom of movement to his subjects. These images anticipate the serial self-portraiture of which we are now capable with iPhones and Androids. In 1996, Penn donated most of his archives to the Art Institute of Chicago, and published a collection of still lifes and a notebook chronicling his photographs over the course of his career.

The Legacy of Irving Penn

In 1960 the columnist Jacob Deschen had the following sharp insight into Penn's work: "Mr. Penn has the unusual distinction of being appreciated by both painters and photographers. The latter will be particularly impressed by his high sense of craft ... and the bold use of the medium has set him apart as one of the most inventive photographers of our time. Painters find in his free use of lighting, pose, and his choice of material the feeling of an artist. The layman is impressed by the sheer impact and novelty of his compelling imagery." Although Penn worked for another 45 years, Deschen's words seem prophetic in summarizing Penn's entire oeuvre.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of Penn's work on photography, video art, and film. A generation of artists raised in the 1970s absorbed his aesthetic. His narratively suggestive scenarios, with their references to film noir, inspired Cindy Sherman, whose Film Stills are visibly indebted to Penn's fashion covers. Penn's work also emboldened a generation of photographers to see themselves as artists. Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, and Helmut Newton are among the photographers who followed in Penn's footsteps, collaborating with fashion designers and artists on bold designs that ushered in a golden age of fashion whose creativity, power, and overall influence continues to this day.

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