tation of his work, he has become a master printer, revitalizing the platinum-palladium process as well as working with new techniques. The combination of innovative photography and meticulous printing has made Irving Penn one of the most significant photographers of the twentieth century.
“Photographing a cake can be art,” Irving Penn said when he opened his studio in 1953. Before long he was backing up his statement with a series of advertising illustrations that created a new high standard in the field and established a reputation that has kept him in the top bracket ever since.
Penn has won renown as much in editorial photography as in advertising illustration, and his innovations especially in portraits and still life have set him apart stylistically. In later years, he turned to television commercials as an outlet for his unique talent. One of the most imitated among contemporary photographers, his work has been widely recognized and applauded.
Irving Penn was born June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, NJ Educated in public; he enrolled at the age of 18 in a four-year course at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, where Alexey Brodovitch taught him advertising design. While training for a career as an art director, Penn worked the last two summers from Harper’s Bazaar as an office boy and apprentice artist, sketching shoes. At this time, he had no thought of becoming a photographer.
In addition to his work for Vogue magazine (the American, British, and French editions) Penn has been represented in many important photographic collections, including those of the Museum of Modem Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Addison Gallery of American Art, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In 1958, Irving Penn was named one of “The Worlds 10 Greatest Photographers” in an international poll conducted by Popular Photography Magazine. Penns statement at the time is a remarkable summation of purpose and idealism: “I am a professional photographer because it is the best way I know to earn the money I require to take care of my wife and children.”
His first job on graduating in 1938 was art director of the Junior League magazine, later he worked in the same capacity for Saks Fifth Avenue department store. At the age of 25, he quit his job and used his small savings to go to Mexico, where he painted a full year before he convinced himself he would never be more than a mediocre.
Returning to New York, he won an audience with Alexander Liberman, art director of Vogue magazine, who hired Penn as his assistant, specifically to suggest photographic covers for Vogue. The staff photographers didnt think much of his ideas, but Liberman did and asked Penn to take the pictures himself. Using a borrowed camera, and drawing on his art background and experience, Penn arranged a still life consisting of a big brown leather bag, beige scarf and gloves, lemons, oranges, and a huge topaz. It was published as the Vogue cover for the issue of October 1, 1943, and launched Penn on his photographic career.
Penn soon demonstrated his extraordinary capacity for work, versatility, inventiveness, and imagination in a number of fields including editorial illustration, advertising, photojournalism, portraits, still life, travel, and television.
Technique and Style
In his earlier work Penn was fond of using a particular device in his portrait work, replacing it with a fresh one from time to time. At one time, he placed two backgrounds to form a corner into which his subject was asked to enter. It was, as Penn explains, a means of closing people in. Some people felt secure in this spot, some felt trapped. Their reaction made them quickly available to the camera. His subjects during this “corner period” included Noel Coward, the Duchess of Windsor, and Spencer Tracy.
Another time Penn used an old rug he had picked up in one of the shops on Third Avenue in New York. It was his portrait prop for a period of about three months. “The rug merged with the background in tone value,” he recalls, “and its form could be changed by the number and placement of boxes used under it. It was a good foil for peoples faces.” Among the great subjects for this series was John Dewey and Alfred Hitchcock.
Two series of portraits are especially memorable. One was made during Christmas in Cuzco, Peru, the other in studios in London, Paris, and New York. The first, in 1948 high in the Andes, followed a fashion assignment. With a few days to spend between planes, Penn persuaded the local photographer to rent him his studio. Pushing aside the ancient studio camera and picking up his Rollei, Penn made some 200 portraits in color and in black-and-white, in a studio that had a stone floor, a painted background, a small rug, and an upholstered posing chair similar to a piano stool.
The other series was the famous “Small Trades”project, a large number of workers posing formally in their work clothes and holding the implements of their trade or occupation. Each was posed against a plain background and lighted from the side, the characteristic lighting that has become identified with most of Penns portraits.
A close examination of Irving Penns wide range of work allows the viewer to confront that old prejudice that commercial work cannot be “Art.” The pursuit of art must be done outside the business world where the influence of money somehow corrupts artistic vision. Yet looking at the technical skill, humor, and the crisp and penetrating eye that Penn employs, his images stand up against the toughest comparison to any art photography. Look at the savage portrait of dancer Mark Morris, or the grotesque mask he makes artist Cindy Sherman hide behind and appreciate a master at work. Of course he can also laugh at himself in his parody, Beauty Treatment with Gauze Mask (1997), which not only makes fun of all the “torture” women go through to keep themselves beautiful, but recalls his early years as a painter.
Irving Penn’s works is often familiar or consisting of simple images, but dont be fooled by this. His creations are intricate and engagingly intellectual and are waiting to enwrap you. We are fortunate that Irving Penn, now in his 80s, is still alive and living in New York City. His legacy to the art and craft of photography will not soon be forgotten.