Irving Penn has been hailed as one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century. His portraits and fashion photography have been internationally recognised and celebrated by critics and public alike.
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Single Oriental Poppy, New York, 1968
Woman with Sunblock, New York, 1966
Irving Penn was born to a Russian Jewish family in Plainfield, New Jersey on 16th July 1917. After studying design under Alexey Brodovitch and graduating in 1938 from the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) with the intention of becoming a painter, Penn found himself drawn to photography. Before becoming a photographer, Penn worked as an assistant art director to Alex Libermann at Vogue. With Libermann’s backing Penn’s ideas were supported and his first cover picture for American Vogue, a still life taken in 1943, marked the start of a lifelong relationship between the photographer and the fashion magazine which lasted until Penn’s death in 2009.
Penn was famed for his incredible appetite for work, spreading his fingers into many facets of the photographic and art world, from illustration, advertising, photojournalism, portraiture, travel, still and television.
Throughout his career, Penn specialised in fashion photography, and worked almost exclusively in a studio environment. He set his subjects against a muted background and under specific lighting conditions, thus highlighting the qualities of the individual rather than their surroundings or social context. Penn’s portraits are stylistically often very simplistic, but the character of the sitter is always given great importance. This is also evident throughout his fashion photographs, in which the models’ personalities often suffuse the image.
During the late 1940s Penn took a number of portraits of famous sitters sandwiched into this V-shaped set, the shape of which ingeniously leads the eye directly onto the subject. By pushing famous names such as Marlene Dietrich, Truman Capote and the Duchess of Windsor into such a tight space Penn squeezed out enhanced versions of their personalities through their exaggerated gestures and expressions.
From 1950, Penn worked as an international freelance photographer, setting up his own studio in New York. Between 1950-1, he created a series of portraits entitled Small Trades, which featured French and British workers posing in their work-clothes and uniforms. In these ground-breaking studies Penn celebrated the working man, subsequently extending this anthropological project by taking further photographs of traditional people in countries such as Nepal, New Guinea and Morocco.
Publications and Exhibitions
Penn published a number of critically acclaimed books such as Moments Preserved (1960) and Worlds in a Small Room (1974). His work has been exhibited in many galleries worldwide, famously exhibiting his photographs of Cigraettes in a 1975 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and more recently a survey of his portraiture work at the National Portrait Gallery London, in 2010. He also has had a great influence on many other famous photographers including Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton.
Irving Penn died aged 92 at his home in Manhattan on October 7th 2009. His fashion photography encapsulated post-World War II glamour, and his particular ability to emphasize the individual in his subject earned him a long career and a reputation as one of the world’s most outstanding photographers.
Irving Penn, 'Cigarettes #34'
Giles: In the early 1970s, Irving Penn began collecting cigarette butts that he found on the street and bringing them back to his studio where he photographed them grouped together, in pairs or as individual objects. This print, numbered 34 in that series, depicts a pair of cigarette butts photographed in close-up against a plain background. The picture is a detailed study of this most disposable of objects. By removing them from their usual context and framing them against a simple white background, Penn’s cigarette photographs take one of the most widely consumed and discarded products in society and transforms them from detritus into a symbol of contemporary culture.
Though Penn is best known for his fashion photography, he began taking still lifes in the 1930s, and while he did sometimes incorporate them into his commercial work for Vogue and other magazines, the still life largely remained something that Penn focused on in his personal work. The particular series was made using the platinum palladium printing process, allowing for a more nuanced tonal range in the print. This allows Penn to accentuate the material characteristics of the objects. We can make out the name of the brand, Chesterfield, and we can delight in the textures of the burnt paper and tobacco. Though Penn had printed work using the platinum process prior to this series, it is the first example of a conscious engagement with the technique as an aesthetic choice. When John Szarkowski visited Penn’s studio in 1975 and saw the Cigarettes series for the first time he gave Penn his first exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York just a short time later.
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