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Irving Penn

American Photographer

Irving Penn Photo

Born: June 16, 1917 - Plainfield, New Jersey

Died: October 7, 2009 - New York City, New York

"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 Signature

Summary of Irving Penn

Simple, sophisticated, and potent as a dry martini, Irving Penn's iconic covers for Vogue Magazine showcased the clean lines and tapered waists of Postwar Paris and New York, and transformed the aesthetic of the fashion industry. Penn removed everything from the shot but the clothing and the model. His dramatically lit figures are essentially living, breathing sculptures. Inspired by Surrealism, Modern dance, and film noir, his images register as provocative visual statements, not just commercial photographs. With a firm grasp on the geometry of the body, the psychology of consumerism, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of art, Penn lifted fashion photography into the realm of high art.

Key Ideas

What Penn's camera leaves out is always as important as what it includes. From omitting the fashion model from an early shoot (see his first Vogue cover, 1943) to eliminating the environment for the figure, his photographs use absence to stimulate appetite.
Penn invented the exotic fashion shoot. The lone model on a desert island, or in a faraway city, sprang directly from his daydreams as an overworked editor in a windowless office in Manhattan; "I would often daydream," he recalled, "of being mysteriously deposed ... among the disappearing aborigines ... in remote parts of the earth."
Like his slightly younger contemporary Richard Avedon, who worked alongside him at Vogue in the 1960s and '70s, Penn stands on the shoulders of two great mentors who transformed fashion photography. Alexey Brodovich, Penn's art school teacher and subsequent employer at Harper's Bazaar, and Alexei Liberman, editor in chief at Vogue, were both Russian emigres steeped in avant-garde culture. Penn internalized their ideas and executed them in radical compositions. They in turn gave Penn and a handful of other great photographers unprecedented license to explore unorthodox concepts in fashion photography, developing a unique style akin to those of Modern artists.
Penn was also a superb portraitist. His so-called "corner portraits" put celebrities into tight corners in awkward poses that revealed unfamiliar elements of their personalities to the camera.
In the 1970s, the world still viewed commercial photography and art as two separate fields. By making high quality prints from some of his earliest photographs, Penn helped audiences see that the tonal richness and variation of his photographs could be just as subtle as a Goya or a Rembrandt etching. His revival of the Platinum-Palladium process from the 19th century helped late-20th-century observers accept photography as an art form.
Penn was the first artist to fully recognize the potential for blending elements of fashion photography with portraiture. More than just live mannequins for the clothes, Penn's models became psychologically complex, if still otherworldly, individuals.
Irving Penn Photo

Irving Penn was born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1917 to a Russian Jewish family. His father, Harry, was a watchmaker and his mother, Sonia, a nurse. He and his younger brother, Arthur, both attended public school. Arthur later became a movie director, directing hit films such as The Chase (1966) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Penn never took a formal course in photography, which was not yet considered a fine art, focusing instead on painting, drawing, and industrial design as a student at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now known as the University of the Arts), where he studied from 1934 to 1938. During these years, he viewed himself as an aspiring painter.

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