Irving Penn, one of the most influential and recognized photographers in the world of fashion, died Wednesday, Oct. 7, at the age of 92. Penn was an expert in combining the worlds of fashion and celebrity with his signature minimalistic style and grace. He has gained recognition and respect in the art world since his first published cover of Vogue in 1943.
Throughout a career spanning more than have a century, Penn’s style remained remarkably consistent, capturing his beautiful and famous subjects with compositional clarity and honesty. Penn photographed the most famous artists, writers, musicians, actors and popular figures of his time, from the Duchess of Windsor to Truman Capote.
Born June 16, 1917, in Plainfield, NJ, Penn studied drawing, painting and graphic and industrial design at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia from 1934 to 1938. Penn was heavily influenced by Alexy Brodovitch, who worked at Harper’s Bazaar in New York as art director. Penn’s artistic talent impressed Brodovitch, and he was chosen to be Brodovitch’s unpaid assistant for two summers.
After finishing school and moving to New York, Penn worked as a freelance designer and illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar and other clients. He also purchased his own Rolleiflex camera and began to photograph Manhattan storefronts and shop window signs. In 1943, he began working at Vogue as an assistant to the art director. Penn’s first assignment was to supervise the design of Vogue’s covers. Unable to interest any staff photographers in executing his artistic ideas, Penn took the photo himself. Penn’s photographs appeared on more than 150 Vogue covers afterward. After serving during World War II in Italy, Penn returned to Vogue as a staff photographer and proceeded to fill the pages of the magazine with portraits of the most famous cultural icons of the century for the next 50 years.
Penn was constantly pushing the boundaries of his art form. In his iconic portraits, his subjects were typically isolated from their natural settings and were photographed in a studio against a stark, flat backdrop. He believed the studio could most closely capture their true natures. In his photographs for Vogue, Penn further developed his defining style which centered on placing models against clean backdrops by putting his subjects in a tight corner between two walls; this was a sort of backdrop that isolated his subjects even farther by backing them into a literal corner with nowhere to hide.
This was a drastic departure from most fashion photographers, who at the time posed their subjects with props and in busy, crowded settings that would actually draw attention away from the clothes themselves. Instead, Penn sought to capture the rich, lush details in the fashions he captured by placing them in front of a plain background to minimize distraction that would draw the eye away from the garment. His models were always posed with an air of elegant confidence that made the clothes seem even more glamorous.
The skill with which Penn choreographed his portraits as well as his still life photos is what separates him from other photographers of the era.
Penn also had a long-standing fascination with still life. His series of still life photographs of found objects from the streets of New York challenged the traditional idea of beauty, giving distinction to things we would only see as garbage- cigarette butts, food waste, and tattered rags of clothes. Filthy cigarette butts were blown up to landmark proportions, making the viewer think about beauty, mortality, and the fleeting nature of life. These prints of Manhattan street trash were photographed with as much care and attention to detail as any portrait Penn arranged.
Penn was able to create a strikingly beautiful and unforgettable image regardless of his subject, whether he was shooting the queen of England or the tribesmen of Africa. In his portraits, he always isolated his subjects from their natural surroundings, which made even the most famous subject seem entirely alone in their world.
His photographs showed the true character of these recognizable figures, even in indistinct and unrecognizable settings. In a time like ours where we look for the photos that show the worst of celebrities and public figures, Penn highlighted what made these great artists, authors and actors beautiful. He neither glorified nor criticized his subjects. He simply presented them as they were in their most basic form as regular people.