1917 - 2009, New York, N.Y.)
Penn, the brother of the motion-picture director Arthur
Penn, initially intended to become a painter, but at age
26 he took a job designing photographic covers for the
fashion magazine Vogue. He began photographing his own
ideas for covers and soon established himself as a fashion
photographer. In 1950 he married model Lisa Fonssagrives,
whom he photographed for much of his best work.
His austere fashion images communicated elegance and luxury
through compositional refinement and clarity of line rather
than through the use of elaborate props and backdrops.
also became an influential portraitist. He photographed
a large number of celebrities, engaging each subject to
sit for hours and to reveal his or her personality to
the camera. In his portraits the subject is usually posed
before a bare backdrop and photographed in natural northern
light. The resulting images combine simplicity and directness
with great formal sophistication.
A memorable series of portraits he created in 1950–51,
collectively called Small Trades, was of labourers in
New York, Paris, and London formally posed in their work
clothes and holding the tools of their trade. This project
eventually extended to places such as Nepal, New Guinea,
Dahomey (now Benin), and Morocco. Penn's later platinum
prints of female nudes and of cigarette butts are characterized
by the same tonal subtlety, compositional virtuosity,
and serenity that mark his fashion photography and portraiture.
Three hundred of Penn's pictures were published in Moments
Preserved (1960). His other books include Worlds in a
Small Room (1974), a collection of portraits of people
he encountered in remote foreign locales, and Passage
(1991), a retrospective survey of more than 400 examples
of his work in portraiture, fashion, ethnic studies, and
In 1996 he donated his archives to the Art Institute of
Chicago. The museum organized a traveling retrospective
of his work the following year.
myself have always stood in the awe of the camera.
I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius,
"Photographing a cake can be art."
"A beautiful print is a thing in itself, not just
a halfway house on the way to the page."
~ Irving Penn
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