Irving Penn was one of the twentieth century’s great photographers, known for his ground-breaking images and masterful printmaking. At a time when photography was primarily understood as a means of communication, he approached it with an artist’s eye and expanded the creative potential of the medium, both in his professional and personal work; becoming one of Vogue magazine’s top celebrated photographers for more than sixty years.
Born in 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey to immigrant parents, Penn attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts from 1934–38 and studied with Alexey Brodovitch in his Design Laboratory. A formidable Russian émigré who worked in Paris in the 1920s, Brodovitch taught the application of principles of modern art and design through exposure to magazines, exhibitions, architecture, and photography.
In 1943, the new art director at Vogue, Alexander Liberman, hired Penn as his associate to prepare layouts and suggest ideas for covers to the magazine’s photographers. Liberman, another Russian émigré who had worked in Paris, looked at Penn’s contact sheets from his recent travels and recognized “a mind, and an eye that knew what it wanted to see.”
After the Second World War, as Penn quickly developed a reputation for his striking style in still life and portraiture, Liberman sent him around the world on portrait and fashion assignments. Separate from these assignments, Penn undertook a major personal project, photographing fleshy nudes at close range in the studio and experimenting with their printing to “break through the slickness of the image.” It was a new approach to photography that stemmed from profound reflection on earlier art historical models, but the images were deemed too provocative and not shown for decades.
In 1950, Penn was sent to Paris to photograph the haute couture collections for Vogue. He worked in a dayight studio with an old theater curtain as a backdrop, and was graced with an extraordinary model named Lisa Fonssagrives, whom he first encountered in 1947.
In the early 1970s, Penn closed his Manhattan studio and immersed himself in platinum printing in the laboratory he constructed on the family farm on Long Island, NY. This led to three major series conceived for platinum: Cigarettes (1972), Street Material (1975–76), and Archaeology (1979–80). Like his earlier Nudes series, this work departed radically from the prevailing uses of photography. Although many found it repulsive, Penn saw in the subject matter “a treasure of the city’s refuse, intriguing distorted forms of color, stain, and typography.”
Penn’s creativity flourished during the last decades of his life. His innovative portraits, still life, fashion, and beauty photographs continued to appear regularly in Vogue. The studio was busy with magazine, advertising, and personal work, as well as printing and exhibition projects. Penn eagerly embraced new ideas, constructing cameras to photograph debris on the sidewalk, experimenting with a moving band of light during long exposures, or with digital color printing. In 2009, Penn died in New York, at the age of 92. During his lifetime, he established The Irving Penn Foundation, which grew out of the studio and whose devotion to Penn’s legacy is derived from contact with his remarkable spirit.