When looking at the photographs of Irving Penn, it always reminds me again of where I would really like to be in terms of photography. Hah! Who wouldn’t like to be the master of lighting with a creative edge? His simple yet effective set-ups are both elegant and timeless – and may have sparked an incentive in my mind to go out and buy every book I can find about this great source of inspiration and awe.
Irving Penn was born on the 16th of June, 1917 in New Jersey and graduated from the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) in 1938 where he studied under Alexy Brodovitch. He painted and some of his drawings were published by Harper’s Bazaar. As his career in photography blossomed, he became known for post World War II feminine chic and glamour photography.
Penn worked for Vogue magazine for many years, working on fashion photography. He founded his own studio in 1953 in which he was among the first photographers to pose subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop. Expanding his austere studio surroundings, Penn constructed a set of upright angled backdrops, to form a stark, acute corner.
Posing his subjects within this tight, unorthodox space, Penn brought an unprecedented sense of drama to his portraits, driving the viewer’s focus onto the person and their expression. In many photos, the subjects appeared wedged into the corner. Subjects photographed with this technique included Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, W. H. Auden, Igor Stravinsky and Marlene Dietrich. Penn’s corner not only shows his nervousness towards his famed subjects but also for him it represented the uneasy atmosphere of the post war era they were living in. By placing his famous subjects in the corner rather than into a comfortable environment, Penn was able to show that even the most renowned and protected people in the society at the time, were also subject to those turbulent times.
Whilst being a master at studio lighting, he mostly used window light and north facing skylights to create his portraits, controlling the light with black ground surfaces. In the 1950s, Irving Penn adopted a new more direct, close-up style – photographing subjects such as Picasso and Louis Jouvet. The two portraits are shot at a closer range, by cropping the subjects head in order to draw attention to their eyes. This is further emphasized by the creative use of light and shadow. Each of the subjects is posed against a plain background and lighted from the side. This characteristic lighting technique has now become identified with most of Penn’s portraiture.
Penn photographed still life objects and found objects in unusual arrangements with great detail and clarity. While his prints are always clean and clear, Penn’s subjects varied widely. Many times his photographs were so ahead of their time that they only came to be appreciated as important works in the modernist canon years after their creation. For example, a series of posed nudes whose physical shapes range from thin to plump were shot in 1949-1950, but were not exhibited until 1980. His still life compositions are skilfully arranged assemblages of food or objects; at once spare and highly organized, the objects articulate the abstract interplay of line and volume. His later works are made on aluminium sheets coated with a platinum emulsion rendering the image with a warmth and maturity that untoned silver prints lacked.
He published numerous books including the recent, “A Notebook at Random” which offers a generous selection of photographs, paintings, and documents of his working methods. His work has featured in numerous galleries.The permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum possesses a silver gelatin print of Penn’s The Tarot Reader, a photograph from 1949 of Jean Patchett and surrealist painter Bridget Tichenor. The Irving Penn Archives, a collection of personal items and materials relating to his career, are held by the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Penn married model Lisa Fonssagrives in 1950 and they would have one son together, Tom Penn. Lisa died in 1992 and Penn would follow on October 7, 2009 at the age of 92.
“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.” —Irving Penn.
“Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. …Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe.” —Irving Penn.
My favourite images: