Irving Penn: Fusing Fashion and Modernism Together

 

Photo by Irving Penn

Photographing a cake can be art.

- Irving Penn

This indisputable phrase was said by one of the world's greatest photographers who didn't even think about taking photos at all until he turned about 25. 

Photo by Irving Penn
Irving Penn was born on June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey, and studied design and industrial arts under Alexey Brodovitch—for whom he later did a few jobs in Harper's Bazaar—to become his successor as art director at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1940.
Photo by Irving Penn
Penn worked there only for a year and after that he decided to travel through the US and Mexico for another year and engage himself in taking photos and drawing. When he returned back to New York, he started working as Alexander Liberman's assistant at Vogue, suggesting the magazine's covers.

Photo by Irving Penn

And though his colleagues didn't approve too much of his work, Liberman knew that the guy had something and sometimes asked him to shoot covers himself. Penn used his designer experience to do his best and his still life photo firstly appeared on the cover of Vogue on October 1, 1943. That was when his photography passion has taken off.

Photo by Irving Penn

In years to come Penn was shooting covers for Vogue that included portrait, still life, and fashion photos. His style was characterized by simplicity and crispness as almost all portrait pictures of celebrities were taken against the plain grey background, pointing out the subject's features and mannerisms.

Photo by Irving Penn

Another technique that he liked to use was to create a corner using props in his studio and stand a subject there. Some people felt safe in this kind of a nook, others were nervous. Both things felt perfect as it helped to reveal the model's character. He used this method while shooting Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, the Duchess of Windsor, W. H. Auden, and Igor Stravinsky.

Photo by Irving Penn

Shortly before the 50's Penn went to Peru where he rented the Stone Age like studio and took pictures of the indigenous peoples using the same techniques as for shooting celebrities in the US. In 1950 he opened his own photo studio in New York where he furthered his work in fashion and commercial photography until he retired.

His attention to detail and the ability to find beautiful in the plain lead him to make still life pictures of simple things—rubbish, stones, debris—which he found outside and turn it into art.

Irving Penn died aged 92 at his home in Manhattan. His work is widely exhibited in the Art Institute of Chicago, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, National Portrait Gallery, London, National Gallery of Art, and Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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