Irving Penn (June 16, 1917 – October 7, 2009) was an American photographer known for his fashion photography, portraits, and still lifes.
Penn's career included work at Vogue magazine, and independent advertising work for clients including Issey Miyake and Clinique. His work has been exhibited internationally and continues to inform the art of photography.
Penn was born to a Russian Jewish family on June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey, to Harry Penn and Sonia Greenberg. Penn's younger brother, Arthur Penn, was born in 1922 and would go on to become a film director and producer. Penn attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) from 1934 to 1938, where he studied drawing, painting, graphics, and industrial arts under Alexey Brodovitch. While still a student, Penn worked under Brodovitch at Harper's Bazaar which published several of Penn's drawings.
Penn worked for two years as a freelance designer and making his first amateur photographs before taking Brodovitch's position as the art director at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1940. Penn remained at Saks Fifth Avenue for a year before leaving to spend a year painting and taking photographs in Mexico and across the US. When Penn returned to New York, Alexander Liberman offered him a position as an associate in the Vogue magazine Art Department. Penn worked on layout for the magazine before Liberman asked him to try photography.
Penn's first photographic cover for Vogue magazine appeared in October 1943. The art department of the Office of War Information in London offered him a job as an "artist-photographer" but he volunteered with the American Field Serviceinstead. After arriving in Naples with a boatload of American troops in November 1944. Penn drove an ambulance in support of the British Eighth Army as it alternately waited out weather and slogged its way north through a miserable winter in the Italian Apennines. In July 1945, he was transferred from Italy to India. He photographed the soldiers, medical operations, and camp life for the AFS, and various subjects while bivouacked in India. He sailed back to New York in November 1945.
Penn continued to work at Vogue throughout his career, photographing covers, portraits, still lifes, fashion, and photographic essays. In the 1950s, Penn founded his own studio in New York and began making advertising photographs. Over the years, Penn's list of clients grew to include General Foods, De Beers, Issey Miyake, and Clinique.
Penn met Swedish fashion model Lisa Fonssagrives at a photo shoot in 1947. In 1950, the two married at Chelsea Register Office, and two years later Lisa gave birth to their son, Tom Penn, who would go on to become a metal designer. Lisa Fonssagrives died in 1992. Penn died aged 92 on October 7, 2009 at his home in Manhattan.
Best known for his fashion photography, Penn's repertoire also includes portraits of creative greats; ethnographic photographs from around the world; Modernist still lifes of food, bones, bottles, metal, and found objects; and photographic travel essays.
Penn was among the first photographers to pose subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop and he effectively used this simplicity. Expanding his austere studio surroundings, Penn constructed a set of upright angled backdrops, to form a stark, acute corner. Subjects photographed with this technique included Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, W. H. Auden, and Igor Stravinsky.
Penn's still life compositions are sparse and highly organized, assemblages of food or objects that articulate the abstract interplay of line and volume. Penn's photographs are composed with a great attention to detail, which continues into his craft of developing and making prints of his photographs. Penn experimented with many printing techniques, including prints made on aluminum sheets coated with a platinum emulsion rendering the image with a warmth that untoned silver prints lacked. His black and white prints are notable for their deep contrast, giving them a clean, crisp look.
While steeped in the Modernist tradition, Penn also ventured beyond creative boundaries. The exhibition Earthly Bodiesconsisted of series of posed nudes whose physical shapes range from thin to plump; while the photographs were taken in 1949 and 1950, they were not exhibited until 1980.Exhibitions
- 1975: Irving Penn: Recent Works, Photographs of Cigarettes, Museum of Modern Art, New York
- 1975: I Platini di Irving Penn: 25 Anni di Fotografia, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Turin
- 1975: Irving Penn: Platinum Plates, Photographer's Gallery, London
- 1977: Irving Penn: Street Material. Photographs in Platinum Metals, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- 1977: Irving Penn: Photographs in Platinum Metals—Images 1947–1975, Marlborough Gallery, New York
- 1980: Exhibition at the Center for Visual Arts, Oakland, California
- 1981: Earthly Bodies: 76 Photographs of the Female Nude, Negatives and Silver Prints Made in 1949–1950, Marlborough Gallery, New York
- 1982: Irving Penn: Recent Still Life: Negatives 1979–1980, Prints in Platinum Metals 1980–1982, Marlborough Gallery, New York
- 1984: Irving Penn, a retrospective, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
- 1986: Irving Penn: Printemps des arts de Monte Carlo, Monte Carlo
- 1989: Irving Penn: Cranium Architecture, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
- 1990: Irving Penn: Master Images, National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
- 1990: Irving Penn, Other Ways of Being: 100 Photographs 1948–1971, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
- 1990: Irving Penn: Platinum Test Material, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona
- 1994: Irving Penn: Collection Privée/Privatsammlung, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Fribourg, Switzerland
- 1995: Irving Penn Photographs: A Donation in Memory of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, Moderna Museet, Stockholm
- 1996: Irving Penn: Fringes, PaceWildensteinMacGill, Los Angeles
- 1997: Le Bain: Dancers' Workshop of San Francisco, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris
- 1997: Irving Penn: A Career in Photography, The Art Institute of Chicago
- 1999: New and Unseen, PaceWildenstein, New York
- 1999: Process, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
- 2001: Irving Penn: Objects (Still Lifes) for the Printed Page, Museum Folkwang, Essen
- 2002: Dancer: 1999 Nudes by Irving Penn, Whitnew Museum of American Art, New York
- 2002: Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949–1950, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- 2002: Irving Penn: Still Life in Color, 1947–2001, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
- 2004: Dahomey (1967), The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
- 2005: Irving Penn: Platinum Prints, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
- 2008: Close Encounters, Morgan Library & Museum, New York
- 2009: The Small Trades, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles: a collection of 252 full-length portraits by Penn from 1950 to 1951
- 2010: Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (London): an exhibit of over 120 portraits of people from the worlds of literature, music and the visual and performing arts
- 2012: Irving Penn: Diverse Worlds, Museum of Modern Art (Moderna Museet), Malmö, Sweden
- 2013: Irving Penn: On Assignment, Pace Gallery, New York City, New York.
- 2015-16: Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, career retrospective of 146 photographs at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
- 2017: Irving Penn: Centennial, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Irving Penn - Le Centenaire, Grand Palais, Paris.
The Art Institute of Chicago holds the Irving Penn Paper and Photographic Archives, which were donated to the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries and the Department of Photography in 1995. In addition, the Art Institute of Chicago has more than 200 of Penn's fine art prints in its collection, and has mounted several exhibitions of work by the artist including the retrospective Irving Penn: A Career in Photography (1997–98) which traveled internationally as well as Irving Penn: Underfoot (2013).
The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) possesses a large collection of Penn's works, including a silver gelatin print of Penn's The Tarot Reader, a photograph from 1949 of Jean Patchett and surrealist painter Bridget Tichenor. In 2013, the museum received 100 images as a gift from the Irving Penn Foundation, significantly increasing the number of Penn's works in the collection to 161 images. The Irving Penn Foundation's gift forms the basis of the exhibition, Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, which is on view at SAAM before traveling to other museum venues around the United States.
"Photographing a cake can be art." —Irving Penn.
"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.
"Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. ...Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe." —Irving Penn, 1975.
"I found pictures trying to show peoples in their natural circumstances generally disappointing [but] feel secure in the artificial circumstances of the studio [accepting] for myself a stylization that I felt was more valid than a simulated naturalism." —Irving Penn, 1974.
BibliographyBooks by Penn
- Moments Preserved. 1960
- Worlds in a Small Room. 1974. ISBN 978-0-670-79025-8
- Inventive Paris Clothes, 1909–1939. 1977. ISBN 0-670-40067-X
- Flowers. 1980. ISBN 0-517-540746
- Passage. 1991. ISBN 0-679-40491-0
- Drawings. 1999. ISBN 0-9665480-0-0
- The Astronomers Plan a Voyage to Earth. 1999. ISBN 0-9665480-1-9
- Irving Penn Regards The Work of Issey Miyake. 1999. ISBN 0-224-05966-1
- Still Life. 2001. ISBN 0-8212-2702-5
- A Notebook at Random. 2004. ISBN 0-8212-6192-4
- Photographs of Dahomey. 2004. ISBN 3-7757-1449-9
- Irving Penn : A Career in Photography. Colin Westerbeck. 1997. ISBN 0-8212-2459-X
- Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949-50. By Irving Penn, Maria Morris Hambourg, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002. ISBN 0-8212-2787-4
- Irving Penn: Platinum Prints. Sarah Greenough, David Summers. 2005. ISBN 0-300-10906-7
- Irving Penn: Small Trades. 2009. ISBN 978-0-89236-996-6
- Irving Penn Portraits. 2010. ISBN 978-1-85514-417-0
- Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty. Merry A. Foresta. Yale University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-300214-901
- Irving Penn: Centennial. Maria Morris Hambourg, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Alexandra Dennett, Philippe Garner, Adam Kirsch, Harald E.L. Prins, Vasilios Zatse., New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1588396181
- Irving Penn: Le Centenaire. Paris: Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2017.
- 1987: The Cultural Award from the German Society for Photography (DGPh)
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