Irving Penn was an American photographer, born in 1917, whose elegant, singular style shaped the direction of fashion photography in the mid-twentieth century. Placing them before plain, flat backgrounds as no one had before, Penn viewed his subjects from an almost anthropological standpoint. While he is best known for his fashion photography, he was an artist first, and his subjects over the years ranged from iconic celebrities such as Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, to eccentric still life, to fleshy nudes, to ethnographic portraiture. Throughout his expansive career spanning six decades, his pictures maintained a standard of quality that placed him consistently in the upper reaches of his field.
Penn’s biography reads like a catalogue—there are no tales of excess or indulgence which typify the high society artist of the time. His story is one of work—which he did prolifically. After spending a year painting in Mexico in 1942, until he was sure he would never be more than a mediocre painter, Penn returned to New York where, through his art school connections, he became the assistant to the art director at Vogue. His first assignment there was to oversee the design of the magazine’s cover art. When staff photographers were unresponsive to his ideas, Penn went into the studio and shot them himself. His first cover, a still life of various fashion accessories, was published on October 1, 1943. He would go on to design and photograph over 150 covers during his legendarily long relationship with the magazine.
Penn’s celebrity portrait and fashion photographs, shot almost exclusively for Vogue, established a classic style which is still emulated by photographers today, and perhaps always will be. They all give singular importance to the subject—the clothes, the model—and project spare elegance, even during the most whimsical eras of 1960s fashion.
Penn was a true artist in that he saw beauty in unusual subjects and was able to translate it into his photographs by acutely highlighting textures and contrasts while maintaining a simplicity of composition. When he turned his focus onto the tribal people of places like New Guinea and Morocco in the 1970s, he posed his subjects with the same tender confidence as with their more contemporary counterparts. The results are strikingly intimate, and would be at home on the pages of National Geographic or in Vogue, where they were published annually.
As his career progressed, his work deviated further from the world of glamour and into high art. He experimented with shooting meticulous, skillfully arranged assortments of things like bones, skulls, cigarette butts and food. In 1949 and 1950 he produced a series of confrontational nude torsos, which he bleached to wash out the flesh tones and give a stark but overtly sexual appearance to the images. These photos were not shown until 1980. He was a masterful technician in the darkroom and a perfectionist in the studio. Once, when assigned to photograph glasses falling from a tray, he insisted upon using Baccarat crystal to maintain the integrity of the shoot. Dozens of the glasses were broken before he was satisfied.
Penn’s photographic legacy combines elegance, minimalism and precision, and an enduring commitment to a style that never wavered in an ever evolving field. His iconic images of celebrity and fashion are a priceless contribution to the archive of his era.