Who is Irving Penn?
Irving Penn was born in 1917. in Plainfield, New Jersey in a family of Russian immigrants. In the period 1934-1938 attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where he studied painting and graphic design. There he also met the well-known Alexey Brodovich, a professor at the university and art director of Harper’s Bazaar magazine. After Penn graduated, Brodovich hired him as an assistant designer at the magazine in New York, a position he held for two years. In parallel, Penn works as a freelance graphic designer on a number of projects.
In the early 1940s, in an attempt to find creative inspiration in painting, he took a year off and traveled through the southern states to Mexico. However, he returned from this trip with a few drawings (later he himself said they were terrible and burned them) and with many photographs, mainly street photography and photojournalism. Arriving back in New York, Penn met Alexander Biederman, art director of the Condè Nast publishing house, who offered him a job at Vogue magazine, where he would provide ideas for the magazine’s illustrations and cover designs. Penn accepted, and thus began one of the most successful and long-lasting collaborations in the fashion industry.
After starting work on the magazine’s covers, Penn was encouraged by Biederman to try taking the photographs himself. He looked at the photos from the year-long trip and was impressed. So Penn hired a camera, arranged a still life of fashion accessories, lemons and oranges, and this photo became his first Vogue cover in issue on 1 October 1943 The first of a total of 165 of his covers (the first black and white is also his), more than any other photographer who worked for the magazine.
At the same time, the world was shaken by the Second World War, and Penn was not left out. Despite being declared unfit for military service due to heart problems, he volunteered for the American Field Services. He was sent first to Italy, where he was an ambulance driver, and then to Austria and India. However, Penn does not stop taking pictures, his favorite camera (Rolleiflex) is with him everywhere, with which he documents the conditions in the field camps, takes portraits of soldiers and medics. With his return to the States after the end of the war, he began to pursue his new passion – portraits.
Many photographers think that their client is the subject. My client is the woman in Kansas who reads Vogue. I want to intrigue her, stimulate her, “feed” her. I am solely responsible to the reader.
These words of Penn are a confirmation of his philosophy, and the reputation he is building among the photography class. He is very often silent, hardly communicating unless he wants to bring out a certain emotion from the model. Which is its main purpose. He says that most of the time, the real work starts after he’s already shot 200 frames. The model is tired, bored or angry. Then he shows his/her true face, or at least a hidden part of it, behind the facade of professionalism, socially accepted norms and good upbringing.
Penn works entirely in a studio setting, keeping everything under his control – from the sets, through the props, to the lighting. He was the first photographer in the fashion industry to use a simple white or gray background (often even paper) for his portraits. He shoots with studio lighting, although many of his portraits are naturally lit by a large window in his studio. He likes to isolate his subjects from everything around them in order to direct the viewer’s focus entirely on them.
Make things manageable enough that you can film them by cutting out anything unnecessary. Because less is more.”
This is the thread connecting all his photographs. Minimalism in its highest form with the sole purpose – to direct the focus and attention to the truly important message of the work. Penn managed to unite photography and art into an inseparable whole, as no one before him had managed. To this day, his work is on display in art galleries and museums, not subject to fashion trends and photographic currents.
Working for Vogue brought Penn into contact with many of the celebrities in film, art and music. He has done portraits of personalities such as Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Miles Davis and many more of the most iconic figures from the 1950s to the present day. His popularity in the mid-1950s was enormous, and recognition was not long in coming. In an international survey of the magazine “Popular Photography” from 1958 Penn has been named one of the “Ten Best Photographers in the World”. In his personal life, things are also going well. While shooting for the magazine, he meets Lisa Fonssagrives, a Swedish supermodel who he says takes his breath away every time he sees her. Three years later, the two got married, they have two children – Mia and Tom.
Penn’s favorite photographs are black and white. The demands of the fashion industry require him to shoot in color, which he does brilliantly, but his love remains black and white photography. He grew up with her and started his professional path. Penn likes to develop and copy all of his black and white photos, giving the color ones to outside studios for processing. He experimented with different lighting methods, used different chemical materials and types of paper until he mastered the whole process. Even today, his prints, exhibited in galleries and museums, startle with their quality. Penn was the first to create a portable studio out of a large tent that could be taken with me on trips. He was sent by Vogue on business trips all over the world – Peru, Japan, Spain, Nepal, New Guinea, Cameroon, Morocco. During these trips, he had the freedom to photograph what had always excited him, namely portraits of people with natural light.
In addition to fashion work for Vogue, Penn has a number of other realized projects grabbing public attention and viewer interest. On one of his trips to Peru, he stayed in Cusco to photograph portraits of local people in traditional dress. In his portable studio, staying true to his philosophy of clean and simple backdrops and props, Penn manages to capture people’s emotions and faces in gorgeous photographs. He made such portraits in almost every country he visited.
Another significant project of his is the series of photographs entitled “Small Trades”, in which he presents artisans and tradesmen of the working class, photographed by him with his “tools of work” in Paris, New York and London. Penn himself describes this series of 60 photographs as a wonderfully “balanced meal”.
In the early 1960s, the budget of fashion magazines was significantly reduced, and this affected Penn’s career development. Alongside her work for Vogue, Penn has produced a number of advertising campaigns, with clients including General Foods, De Beers, Clinique and L’Oreal.
The greatest privilege I have had in photography is changing the
If we look at Penn’s body of work, difficult as it is, given the more than 60 years spent with a camera in hand, we see the extraordinary variety of photographic genres in which he has braved. From his early street photography and photojournalism, through fashion shots, the wonderful studio portraits that put him on the map of the photography community, and to his other great love – still lifes. A love that only an artist and creator can interweave so skillfully with photography so that it looks like the most natural thing. His perfectionism in the preparation of still lifes goes so far that those closest to him tell how he orders two hundred lemons, from which he chooses only one to photograph two hundred times. How often in his portraits we see elements of still life, and they, in turn, scream with emotion. Penn’s unique look, his sense of beauty beyond the banal and boring, will leave him not only on the walls of galleries, but also in the golden fund of photographic history.
P.P. Penn passed away at the age of 92 at his home in Manhattan on October 7, 2009.
Author: Angel Batolov