Remembering Irving Penn 1917-2009: The Revolutionary Fashion Photographer

Irving Penn in the 1960s

“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 a word, effective.””- Irving Penn

Penn’s uncanny ability to make simplicity mesmerizing while glamorizing the “everyday,” transcended fashion photography into the realm of art. He revealed the importance of capturing life and emotion, using his trademark stark backgrounds and natural lighting rather than contrived props—his minimalist technique inherently ushering in a new era for commercial photography. With a career spanning more than half a century, Penn captivated admirers with evocative photographs of celebrities, Hell’s Angels, fashion models, still lives, the torsos voluptuous female nudes and places that seemed so distant to the mid-century American eye—New Guinea, Dahomey, Nepal and Cuzco. As one of the fathers of modern postwar fashion photography and portraiture, he is revered for his visual clarity, uncomplicated direction, use of light, attention to detail and an ability to give praise to commonly overlooked subjects.

Born on June 1, 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey, Penn sought a career as a painter. He attended the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia where he studied painting, drawing, and graphic design. Mentored by his teacher Alexey Brodovitch, Art Director for Harper’s Bazaar, Penn began working as an unpaid assistant at the magazine during his summer vacations. Settling in New York after graduating in 1938, he freelanced as a designer before becoming Brodovitch’s assistant in the advertising department at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1940. Still wanting to be a painter, Penn left for Mexico and devoted a year to the artistry, returning in 1943 to the start of what would become a lifelong partnership with Vogue.


His Vogue career began at the age of 26 as an assistant art director —reporting to Art Director Alexander Liberman. Penn’s main responsibility was to supervise the design of Vogue’s covers. When staff members did not show interest in his designs, he began shooting them himself. On October 1, 1943, Vogue printed a cover featuring a still life – a brown leather bag and belt, scarf, gloves, an image of oranges and lemons, a jeweled ring and a note pinned to the wall – his first published work for the magazine. Still lives were not the usual realm for Vogue covers, but they were indicative of Penn’s training as a painter. He left to serve in World War II for a little less than year, returning to Vogue in1945 as a staff photographer. Always taking Vogue into new directions—the April 1950 cover of model Jean Patchett was the first black and white cover shot in years. His final cover for Vogue, May 2004, featured an elegant photograph of Nicole Kidman that revived his signature sense of timelessness and austere elegance. During his career, Penn shot more than 150 Vogue covers.

Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Truman Capote

A man who preferred his own anonymity, Penn photographed some of the greatest talents of the time. He isolated his subjects by positioning them against an unadorned backdrop or in tight corners. His celebrity portraits included Miles Davis, James van deer Zee, John Osborne, S. J. Perelman, Jean Cocteau, Barnett Newman, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso. Penn treated his subjects as equals rather than placing their fame on a pedestal, ultimately exposing the life behind the achievement. In 1947, while shooting “The Twelve Most Photographed Models of the Period,” he met Lisa Fonssagrives, the Swedish ballerina turned model who is frequently considered the world’s first supermodel. They married in 1950 and remained together until her passing in 1992. Penn’s continued penchant for still lives produced such subjects as cigarette butts and tattered abandoned clothing as well as recognition in the New York gallery scene. After traveling the globe photographing indigenous people, he published a series of pictures in 1950-1951 featuring tradesmen and women in New York City, Paris and London that are now on view as part of Irving Penn: Small Trades at The Getty Center in Los Angeles until January 10, 2010. Penn opened his studio in 1953 where he continued his unique approach to photography.

His calculated perfectionism comes through in all of his work. Ahead of his times, Penn broke rules and challenged the industry’s ideas about beauty, fame and glamour. Through his lens, he brought life to the unfamiliar, gave grace to banal subjects and made the garment the focus without accentuating the unnecessary. It was his unquestionable talent that makes Penn’s work fundamental in shaping the history of fashion photography.

One Comment

  1. Dennis
    Posted December 28, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Good first step on Irving Penn. It would be nice to continue the discussion here in comments because of the importance of the subject.

    Penn is known for his sets and props, and for using them in contrived ways. Note the pictures in this story, a prop in almost every picture. It would be interesting to discuss how Penn transcends political notions of “contrived” while still being flagrant and consistent. It would be interesting to compare/contrast Penn’s use of props with the work of other noted photographers.

    Penn’s minimalism is very particular and peculiar. it begs for another term. His sets are almost expressionistic in their textures. Definitely high-modern, but that umbrella is too vast. What is Penn if he’s not a minimalist?

    I’d love to discuss precisely how Penn was ground-breaking and innovative. It’s hard to grasp his contribution in today’s context. It’s accepted that he was a trail-blazer, but it’s rare anyone ever says why or when. This article establishes he ran a still life cover and a B&W cover on Vogue. Interesting. What else? Anyone?

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