“Photographing a cake can be art,” Irving Penn asserted when he opened his studio in 1953. Before long he was backing up his statement with a series of advertising illustrations that created a new high standard in the field and established a reputation that has kept him in the top bracket ever since.
Penn has won renown as much in editorial photography as in advertising illustration, and his innovations especially in portraiture and still life have set him apart stylistically.
In later years he turned to television commercials as a outlet for his unique talent.
One of the most imitated among contemporary photographers, his work has been widely recognized.
In addition to his work for Vogue magazine (the American, British, and French editions) Penn has been represented in many important photographic collections, including those of the Museum of Modem Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Addison Gallery of American Art, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In 1958 Irving Penn was named one of “The World’s 10 Greatest Photographers” in an international poll conducted by Popular Photography Magazine.
Penn’s statement at the time is a remarkable summation of purpose and idealism: “I am a professional photographer because it is the best way I know to earn the money I require to take care of my wife and children.”
Irving Penn was born June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, N.J. Educated in public schools, he enrolled at the age of 18 in a four-year course at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, where Alexey Brodovitch taught him advertising design.
While training for a career as an art director, Penn worked the last two summers for Harper’s Bazaar magazine as an office boy and apprentice artist, sketching shoes. At this time he had no thought of becoming a photographer.
His first job on graduating in 1938 was art director of the Junior League magazine, later he worked in the same capacity for Saks Fifth Avenue department store.
At the age of 25, he quit his job and used his small savings to go to Mexico, where he painted a full year before he convinced himself he would never be more than a mediocre painter.
Assistant job at Vogue
Returning to New York, he won an audience with Alexander Liberman, art director of Vogue magazine, who hired Penn as his assistant, specifically to suggest photographic covers for Vogue.
The staff photographers didn’t think much of his ideas, but Liberman did and asked Penn to take the pictures himself.
Using a borrowed camera, and drawing on his art background and experience, Penn arranged a still life consisting of a big brown leather bag, beige scarf and gloves, lemons, oranges, and a huge topaz. It was published as the Vogue cover for the issue of October 1, 1943, and launched Penn on his photographic career.
Penn soon demonstrated his extraordinary capacity for work, versatility, inventiveness, and imagination in a number of fields including editorial illustration, advertising, photojournalism, portraits, still life, travel, and television.
“The Corner Period”
In his earlier work Penn was fond of using a particular device in his portrait work, replacing it with a fresh one from time to time.
At one time he placed two backgrounds to form a corner into which his subject was asked to enter. It was, as Penn explains, a means of closing people in. “Some people felt secure in this spot, some felt trapped. Their reaction made them quickly available to the camera.”
His subjects during this “corner period” included Noel Coward, the Duchess of Windsor, and Spencer Tracy, most of whom complied readily.
Another time Penn used an old rug he had picked up in one of the shops on Third Avenue in New York. It was his portrait prop for a period of about three months.
“The rug merged with the background in tone value,” he recalls, “and its form could be changed by the number and placement of boxes used under it. It was a good foil for peoples’ faces.”
Among the great subjects for this series was John Dewey and Alfred Hitchcock.
Two series of portraits are especially memorable. One was made during Christmas in Cuzco, Peru, the other in studios in London, Paris, and New York.
The first, in 1948 high in the Andes, followed a fashion assignment. With a few days to spend between planes, Penn persuaded the local photographer to rent him his studio.
Pushing aside the ancient studio camera and picking up his Rollei, Penn made some 200 portraits in colour and in black-and-white, in a studio that had a stone floor, a painted background, a small rug, and an upholstered posing chair similar to a piano stool.
The other series was the famous “Small Trades” project, a large number of workers posing formally in their work clothes and holding the implements of their trade or occupation. Each was posed against a plain background and lighted from the side, the characteristic lighting that has become identified with most of Penn’s portraiture.
Penn varied his equipment, materials, and methods in line with the assignment and his interpretation of it.
Thus, he will turn to the Leica or Nikon and a selection of lenses. Or he will go to the 4X5 or 8X10 Deardorff view cameras, or the Rolleiflex or Hasselblad.
Penn supervised all the black-and-white processing in his studio, but sent his colour work to an outside laboratory.
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