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Famous Photographers - Irving Penn

Irving Penn: Platinum Prints
Irving Penn: Platinum Prints

Famous Photographers >> Irving Penn

Irving Penn (b. 1917) was born in New Jersey. He is known for his so called "aristocratic" fashion photography. Penn has his own way of looking at things and not all of his photos could be called aristocratic in nature. While his prints are always clean and clear, the subjects vary widely. Many times his photographs are so ahead of their time that they only came to be appreciated as important works in the modernist canon years after their creation. A famous series of posed nudes which varied in physical type from the normal to the plump were shot in 1949-1950 but were not seen until a handful were exhibited in 1980. In 2002, 53 of them appeared in a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In many cases the subjects appear sculptural and at times like a primitive Venus. The graphic detail and clarity of his images would not have been possible to put on display in the early 1950's.

Irving Penn studied under Alexy Brodovitch at the Philadelphia Museum School from which he graduated in 1938. In the early years some of his drawings were published by Harper's Bazaar and he also painted. As his career in photography blosommed he became known for post World War II feminine chic and glamour photography. He was among the first photographers to pose his subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop, and certainly he used this simplicity more effectively than any other photographer at the time. Expanding on his austere studio surroundings, he constructed a set of upright angled backdrops, to form a starkly acute corner. By posing his subjects within such a tight, unorthodox space, he was able to bring an unprecedented sense of drama to his portraits, driving the viewer's focus onto the person and what their expression revealed. These subjects included Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, and Georgia O'Keeffe, W.H. Auden, Igor Stravinsky, and Marlene Dietrich. In many cases they appeared to be wedged into a corner. Penn also photographed still life objects including found objects with great detail, clarity and unusual arrangements. Penn spent many years doing fashion photography for Vogue magazine.

Penn started his own studio in 1953. His photographs are always posed or arranged. While he is definitively a great master and innovator of the studio flash, the majority of his portraits are lit by a simple window light. When travelling to New Guinea and other areas to make portraits of indiginous people he created and used a portable studio, with a skylight always deployed facing north with impressive results.

Clarity, composition, careful arrangement of objects or people, form, and the use of light characterize his work. His favorite model, Lisa Fonssagrives, was also his wife. He currently lives and works in New York City, He is a regular contributor to Vogue magazine. He has published numerous books in the past few years, the most recent of which is "A Notebook at Random" offering a generous selection of reproduced photographs, paintings, and documents showing some of his working methods.

Further Information

Recommended Reading

A Notebook at Random, Irving Penn Irving Penn : A Career in Photography Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949-50 Photographs of Dahomey
A Notebook at Random, Irving Penn Irving Penn : A Career in Photography Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949-50 Photographs of Dahomey

On the Web

Irving Penn 1917- A short biography on photographer Irving Penn from

Irving Penn, A Career in Photography Permanent Web site of a major exhibition held at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Irving Penn".