How Irving Penn ‘changed the way people saw the world’

Alastair Smart and Photographs specialist Rebecca Jones examine the legacy of a photographer whose elegant minimalism broke down boundaries — illustrated with works offered at Christie’s


Irving Penn, New York, 1963. Photograph by Bert Stern  

Irving Penn altered our perception of beauty

Born in the city of Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1917, Irving Penn went on to become one of the great photographers of the 20th century. He’s renowned for breaking down the boundary between commercial and fine-art photography, working in a style of refined, elegant minimalism.

According to Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, a magazine for which Penn worked for more than 60 years, he ‘changed the way people saw the world and our perception of what is beautiful’.

Penn shot 163 covers for Vogue

In the mid-1930s, Penn studied painting and graphic design at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. He originally hoped to become a painter, but career plans were put on hold during the Second World War, when he volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver in Italy.

In 1943, he was hired as a designer by Alexander Liberman, the art director of Vogue in New York. His role was meant to be that of conceiving each month’s cover, but within a few months he and Liberman grew dissatisfied with the photographers they were employing — so Penn started to shoot himself.

He’d go on to photograph 163 Vogue covers in all, among the most famous that from 1950 of Jean Patchett, one of the leading fashion models of the time. Penn referred to her as the ‘young, American goddess [of] couture’. There’s a classical symmetry to the composition, broken only by Patchett’s bold, sideways glance.

‘The shots he took for Vogue  are amongst those which fetch the highest prices at auction today,’ say Rebecca Jones, Photographs specialist at Christie’s New York. ‘Many of these images have become well-known and recognisable to a broad audience, which is to say they appeal to more than just photograph-lovers and even fashion-lovers. They appeal to collectors of contemporary art generally.’

Another such work is Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), in which the photographer shot his fashion-model wife, Lisa, in a voluminous, diamond-pattern dress. She also sports a Lilly Daché hat, a pair of opera gloves and a commanding gaze.

It’s a stellar example of Penn’s approach to fashion photography: where subject and clothing are what matter, and the setting is unadorned to the point of being bare. It’s no exaggeration to say that, by emphasising style over context, he helped to revolutionise the genre.

He photographed the cultural giants of his era

Penn is also famous for photographing a large number of cultural luminaries, from Truman Capote and artist Georgia O’Keeffe to Igor Stravinsky and actor Spencer Tracy. His trademark, begun in 1948, was to wedge them between two grey stage-walls that met in a sharply angled ‘V’. More often than not this prompted remarkable revelations of his subject’s character — through posture, facial expression or both. 

‘They couldn’t run away,’ Penn said. ‘For that moment of time, they belonged to me.’

These became known as his ‘corner portraits’. Just as in his fashion shoots, he disdained glamorous backdrops, the better to focus in on his subject’s essence.

‘These photos also perform consistently at auction,’ says Jones, ‘albeit typically at a more accessible price point than prints of his most glamorous and recognised fashion images. The combination of famous photographer and famous sitter is one that appeals to many collectors.’

In the 1950s, Penn adopted a second signature style for capturing celebrities: shooting their faces close-up. Among the standouts is that from 1957 of Pablo Picasso, the Spaniard’s wide-open left eye seeming almost to float between his upturned collar and the brim of his hat.

Flowers, ‘Cigarettes’ and Penn’s passions

In the 1960s, Penn began taking still-life shots of flowers. He’d go on to create a whole book of floral studies — Flowers, published in 1980 — and was still shooting the same subject at the start of this millennium, for example in Iceland Poppy/ Papaver nudicaule (A).

He said he was drawn to flowers ‘considerably after they’ve passed the point of perfection’, captivated by their blemishes and shrivelling petals. In the case of Gingko Leaves, New York, 1990he simply captured two leaves — one yellow, one green — that he’d found fallen on the New York sidewalk one autumn.

Throughout his career, Penn showed a gift for investing unlikely subjects with unprecedented grandeur. In 1972, he produced one of his major series, ‘Cigarettes’, featuring greatly magnified images of cigarette butts side by side. Bent and slightly mashed, they don’t look too dissimilar to weathered, Classical columns.

This series was exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and followed by two similar ones depicting discarded items from the city streets (‘Archaelogy’ and ‘Street Material’).

Travel and the ‘beautiful texture’ of Penn’s platinum prints

Penn was a keen traveller, visiting numerous countries worldwide with his Rolleiflex camera. The results included two well-known sets of portraits, taken in a portable studio: of New Guinea tribesmen and indigenous Peruvians.

An example of the latter, Cuzco Children, 1948, featuring a young brother and sister resting their hands on an upholstered stool, actually holds the world record for the price of a Penn photo at auction. It realised $529,000 in 2008.

According to Jones, however, it’s the process by which Penn made that particular print as much as the subject matter that’s crucial. ‘He perfected a way of printing his images that involved platinum rather than silver and ended up with photographs of the most beautiful texture. The tonalities are so soft they almost look like watercolours’.

He was a consummate technician

Further evidence of this comes in the shots he took of nude, female torsos in 1949-50. For these, he bleached his prints, thereby creating a rich chiaroscuro effect about the flesh.

It should be pointed out that he had a whimsical side, too. This comes across in the still-life combinations he shot (in colour) throughout his life. Theatre Accident, New York, 1947, is an artfully-yet-quirkily arranged photo, featuring the contents of a handbag. 

Irving Penn’s legacy

Penn died in 2009, aged 92, having continued to work even in his final years. He was survived by, among others, his brother Arthur (a film-maker who directed 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde).

The obituaries hailed a photographer of sophistication and compositional economy, who’d experimented with — and mastered — all manner of styles, techniques and subject matter across seven decades. Many of them also included his quote, ‘I have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognise it for the instrument it is: part Stradivarius, part scalpel’.

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In 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York staged Irving Penn: Centennial, a vast retrospective to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. (It travelled to Berlin a year later.) ‘That really was a comprehensive survey,’ says Jones. ‘Undoubtedly, we will continue to see increased interest in a broader range of works by Penn in the years that follow this important study of the artist’s diverse output.’

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