Irving Penn

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Known for his fashion photography of  capturing the best still lifes and portraits, the American photographer Irving Penn became an icon in the 40’s and 50’s. When he opened his studio in 1953, he asserted that “photographing a cake can be art” and with this statement, he showed the world that  even the most mundane things could  be captured creatively. His advertising illustrations backed up this statement as he went onto create high standards in the field of photography where he remained a popular name for several years. 

Penn mastered editorial photography as well as advertising illustration and became famous for his stylistic upper hand in still life and portraiture. He channeled his unique artistic expression towards television commercials in the later  years of his life. An eminent name in the industry, Irving Penn has been widely recognized and praised by millions for his work, by both contemporary artists and laymen alike. 

He worked for prestigious fashion companies like Vogue magazine’s American, French and British editions. Additionally, he also served as a representative in various well-known photographic collections or exhibitions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Addison Gallery of American Art, to name a few. 

The ‘Popular Photography’ magazine conducted an international poll in 1958 to list the “The World’s 10 Greatest Photographers” and undoubtedly, Irving Penn’s name featured in it. His brutally honest statement at the time is known to have won many hearts and reveals the nature of this wonderful artist. On being featured in the list he said- “I am a professional photographer because it is the best way I know to earn money, which I require to take care of my wife and children”. 

Before we discuss his career, it is important to know about his background. Irving Penn was born in Plainfield on June 16, 1917 and received his formal education in various public schools. The Philadelphia Museum School of Art accepted a young 18-year old Penn for a four-year course and this is where he learnt advertising design from Alexey Brodovitch. During this time, he also worked at yet another popular magazine called Harper’s Bazaar as an office boy doing minor jobs. Even up to this point in his life, he had no intentions of becoming a photographer. 

Upon graduating, Penn secured his first job at Junior League magazine and soon after he moved to work at the Saks Fifth Avenue departmental store.At the age of 25, he  gave up all jobs to become a painter in Mexico but soon realised that he was not meant to be one. 

Upon his return to New York, he was hired as an  assistant to Alexander Liberman, art director of Vogue magazine. His job was to suggest  photographic covers for the magazine. However, his work was hardly appreciated, except for Liberman who encouraged Penn to click photographs. Penn’s photograph of a still life with a beige bag and a few other accessories was published onOctober 1, 1943 issue of Vogue and this kickstarted his career as a professional photographer. 

He showcased immense talent, imagination, creativity, perseverance and versatility in more than one field, that included portraits, still life, travel, photojournalism, advertising, editorial illustration and  television to name a few. 

Penn was always playing around and experimenting with different stylistic devices to enhance the quality of his work in an effort to do something unique. One such method was when he combined two backgrounds to make a corner and asked his subject to enter the space. While some felt trapped and vulnerable, some others felt secure and their expressions and body language provided  some great photographic material. Renowned names like the Duchess of Windsor, Noel Coward and Spencer Tracy were a part of this experiment. 

In another instance, Penn picked up an old used rug from a shop at Third Avenue in New York and demonstrated this as a background for almost three months. Alfred Hitchcock and John Dewey were some of his subjects for this particular project. 

There are two series of portraits for which Irving Penn is remembered even today. The first one was made in Cuzco, Peru during the Christmas of 1948. He got only a few days to spend on the series due to the added pressure of his fashion assignment, but he managed to click some 200 portraits with minimum resources. The resources  included a local artist’s studio, a painted background, a small rug and a few other things. 

The other series that he became well known for was the famous “Small Trades” project. The portraits consisted of numerous workers posing in their work wear  clutching on to their professional implements. This series was marked by Penn’s unique style of portraiture. 

The photographer kept changing his method, style, equipment, and materials to suit the project and the subject. He switched between cameras like the Nikon or Leica and the Rolleiflex or Hasselbald. He took care of the black and white prints in his studio, but sent out the colored ones to another place to be washed. 

We lost this legendary photographer in 2009, at the age of  92. His legacy has been maintained and is continued by the Irving Penn Foundation. 

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