Irving Penn’s Famous V-Shaped Set

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. Penn’s portraits are stylistically often very simplistic, but the character of the sitter is always given great importance. This is also evident in his fashion photographs, in which the models’ personalities often suffuse the image.

Penn started photographing for American Vogue in 1943. Thereafter, his photographs featured on 165 covers, more than any other photographer. Not wanting to capture just fashion, Penn remarked about his continuing desire to capture the whole aura of his sitters: “In portrait photography there is something more profound that we seek inside a person, while being painfully aware that a limitation of our medium is that the inside is recordable only insofar as it is apparent on the outside.”

During this period, Penn took a number of portraits of famous sitters sandwiched into his studio’s V-shaped set, the shape of which ingeniously leads the eye directly onto the subject. This photograph of Marlene Dietrich was taken in New York, in 1948. By pushing famous names such as Dietrich, Truman Capote and the Duchess of Windsor into such a tight space Penn squeezed out graphic and enhanced versions of their personalities, clothing, and silhouettes through their exaggerated gestures and expressions.

 

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