Irving Penn - Biography and Legacy
Plainfield, New Jersey
New York City, New York
Biography of Irving Penn
Early Period and Education
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.
Penn's teacher and mentor, Alexey Brodovich was a particularly large and important influence. An emigre from Russia by way of France, Brodovich informed his students of the latest avant-garde European art styles, especially Surrealism. His favorite expression (and call upon his students and colleagues) was étonnez-moi! (astonish me!). Brodovich was a powerhouse of influence and connections; he was one of the conduits through which many European ideas travelled to New York before and during World War II. Penn attended a class Brodovich taught in Philadelphia's Museum School of Industrial Art. Penn was one of the first to take the experimental course, "Design Laboratory", which introduced students to contemporary culture and technology as important sources for graphic design.
During his last two summers as a student, Penn worked as an assistant to Brodovitch at one of America's oldest fashion magazines, Harper's Bazaar. After graduating in 1938, Penn moved to New York City and continued to work for Harper's and other creative organizations as a freelance designer and illustrator. He bought his first camera, a Rolleiflex, with money he earned from Harper's. On the streets of New York and Philadelphia, Penn experimented with photography, taking shots of industrial buildings and window displays. Brodovitch selected some of these photographs for publication in Harper's Bazaar, giving him a foothold in the world of New York fashion photography. In 1940, Penn was offered the position of Director of Advertising at Saks Fifth Avenue, a graphic design position that he quit less than 2 years later, disillusioned with the industry. But even in his early 20s, Penn had a director-level position in a major corporation.
After leaving his position in advertising, Penn travelled through the southern United States and Mexico. He had never abandoned painting, and his aim was to continue and be inspired by Folk Art, especially that of the American South, which had long interested him. On his way down to Mexico, Penn used his camera to document his voyage. He then set up a studio just outside of Mexico City and began painting. After a year, however, he realized that painting was not his strong suit. He returned to New York with a suitcase full of negatives from the various exploratory photos he took on his travels. He explored various modes of photography on the road including following the examples of Eugene Atget's explorations, Henri Cartier-Bresson's street photography and photojournalism, and Walker Evan's social documentary, and various Surrealist imagery.
Upon his return, Alexei Liberman, senior artistic editor at Vogue, offered Penn a job as assistant designer and supervisor of the magazine covers. The staff photographers refused to shoot the image Penn suggested for his first magazine cover in 1943, finding it too radical. Liberman, who disagreed, authorized Penn to stage and shoot the cover himself, and assisted him in completing it. With Liberman's continued support, Penn took a more hands-on role from then on in shooting the magazine covers, and thus charting a new path in fashion photography.
From that point on, Penn's career at Vogue was essentially uninterrupted, apart from a brief interlude as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in Europe from 1944-45. He photographed platoon headquarters, his military peers, civilians from Italy to Burma, and his favorite Italian Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (that he fortuitously met), back to Vogue, ensuring that he could resume his position at the magazine.
After his return to New York in 1946, Penn worked with other fashion and home magazines as well as Vogue, juggling fashion, portraiture, and ethnographic photography. Photographing indigenous peoples in their natural surroundings had long been a dream of Penn's. On Vogue's dime, he travelled to Spain, Peru, Bangladesh, Hawaii, Manila, The Philippines, India, and other exotic locations for fashion shoots. On these occasions, he also completed personal projects.
Through the 1940s, Penn insisted he had no interest in fashion photography per se. It is evident, however, that he absorbed earlier styles and approaches, breaking the rules deliberately (see, for example, his exclusion of the fashion model from his 1943 fashion cover). Penn's approach seemed to follow the famous words of French poet Charles Baudelaire: "That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity - that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment - are an essential part and characteristic of beauty."
The Vogue editors continued to give him unprecedented autonomy over his shoots, even flying him to Paris in 1949 so that he could benefit from the highbrow aesthetic of haute couture. Penn returned with what became his signature style -- carefully staged photographs of models resembling living sculpture. Lisa Fonssagrives, one of Penn's many models, married him in 1950 and two years later gave birth to a son, Tom. They remained married until her death in 1992.
By 1950, Penn was a highly-respected figure in the art and fashion worlds. These worlds still remained separate, however, and many highly respected authorities in the art world did not consider photography an art form at all. MoMA curator Edward Steichen, himself a photographer and a champion of the medium as an art form, moderated a famous discussion "What is Modern Art" in 1950, a dialogue that defined Modern art for years to come, and at which Penn defended his medium as one of the most central to the art of his time.
While fashion photography remained Penn's primary source of income, during the 1940s and '50s, he also ventured into portraiture, especially the group portrait, a genre that offered "a welcome balance to the fashion diet at Vogue". Ballet Theater and The Twelve Most Photographed Models (both from 1947) demonstrate his early mastery of the genre. In 1953, Penn opened his own studio devoted to advertising and commercial photography, and other side projects.
In the 1960s Penn, who had saved the negatives from his photoshoots over the years, was already looking for ways to preserve his artistic legacy. Looking to reprint his photographs, he experimented with emerging technology and spent long hours in the library and the studio trying to come up with the best method. In 1964, he rediscovered the platinum print, a method widely used in the 19th century, which enabled him to manipulate and enhance the richness of tone in his earlier compositions. Over the next thirty years, Penn laboriously reprinted all his new photographs and much of the earlier work as high-quality prints. These printed images created a new audience for his fashion and portrait photographs. Museums and galleries began to recognize Penn's work for its quality and formal mastery of the medium. To this audience, his alignment with the avant garde art aesthetic was fully visible.
In 1962, Penn joined Richard Avedon, Bert Stern, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and other well-known American photographers on the faculty of the Famous Photographers School, a correspondence-based program designed to introduce students to photography as art. He continued to work as a commercial photographer, making advertisements for Estee Lauder and Clinique, and traveling on assignments to Spain, France, Portugal, Japan, Sweden, and Crete.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Penn remained prolific, and rekindled an old artistic passion while developing a new one. Almost fifty years after abandoning his career as a painter, Penn returned to it. As a photographer, he indulged his passion for contemporary Japanese fashion. In 1983 he struck up a friendship with fashion designer Issey Miyake that quickly led to a close working relationship in which both artists thrived. Though they were very close friends, Miyake absented himself from Penn's photoshoots, demonstrating his implicit level of trust in the photographer's eye. In turn Penn paid homage to the mastery of Miyake's otherworldly designs and the geometric complexity of his clothing, using bright light and simple white backgrounds.
Up until the end of his life, Penn continued to experiment with the latest technology, as well as older methods, to create new effects with his camera. Among the final frontiers he explored involved what he called "moving light." Taking multiple exposures with a fresnel light that flashed as the subject moved, usually in a circular motion, Penn gave unprecedented autonomy and freedom of movement to his subjects. These images anticipate the serial self-portraiture of which we are now capable with iPhones and Androids. In 1996, Penn donated most of his archives to the Art Institute of Chicago, and published a collection of still lifes and a notebook chronicling his photographs over the course of his career.
The Legacy of Irving Penn
In 1960 the columnist Jacob Deschen had the following sharp insight into Penn's work: "Mr. Penn has the unusual distinction of being appreciated by both painters and photographers. The latter will be particularly impressed by his high sense of craft ... and the bold use of the medium has set him apart as one of the most inventive photographers of our time. Painters find in his free use of lighting, pose, and his choice of material the feeling of an artist. The layman is impressed by the sheer impact and novelty of his compelling imagery." Although Penn worked for another 45 years, Deschen's words seem prophetic in summarizing Penn's entire oeuvre.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact of Penn's work on photography, video art, and film. A generation of artists raised in the 1970s absorbed his aesthetic. His narratively suggestive scenarios, with their references to film noir, inspired Cindy Sherman, whose Film Stills are visibly indebted to Penn's fashion covers. Penn's work also emboldened a generation of photographers to see themselves as artists. Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, and Helmut Newton are among the photographers who followed in Penn's footsteps, collaborating with fashion designers and artists on bold designs that ushered in a golden age of fashion whose creativity, power, and overall influence continues to this day.