In the world of fashion photography certain names are known for their iconic work. Present day photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Patrick Demarchelier are known as “Vogue “ photographers. Known for their ability to capture a model or celeb in artful and transcendent picture. Irving Penn knew how to capture the iconic supermodels of the time in bold fashions and celebs like Audrey Hephburn in a clean and humanizing manor. Although he was known for his portiats of famous people he also enjoyed still life photography. A global photographer, he introduced different cultures to anyone who viewed his work. As a celebration of his centerian birthday the Irving Penn Foundation has gifted many of the prints showcased in the exhibition to the Met. The following are prints of Penns work covering fashion models, Vogue Covers, artist, designers and actors and more.
Early street photography
Pens first camera was a twin-lens-reflex 2 &1/4 inch square format Rolleiflex. He used it while working as an assistant for Harper’s Bazaar graphic designer and art director, Alexey Brodovitch. Penns work included photographs of shops, hand written ads and street signs in NY and Philly. His photography documented the time period of depression the U.S. was in. His techniques consisted of focusing and extreme cropping each picture. He also used this technique while on a trip to the southern U.S. in 1941 and again on a photo and painting trip in Mexico.
Still life photography was his favorite topic to photograph. The subject required discipline and creativity at its most challenging point for Penn. In still life photography he had to compose an image that could tell a story. He would often use traces of human interaction like a a lipstick stain on a glass to help interpret the story. The purpose was to make the viewer of this photography focus on the signs of life and the possible story behind the pictures.
Existential Portraits 1947-48
After serving in WWII Penn once again worked for Vogue. Art director Alexander Lieberman gave him the job of taking self portraits. The goal was to introduce culture to the pages of Vogue and broaden Penn’s career. Vogue picked the clients that would be photographed while Penn controlled the set. This job was a first for him as he never photographed famous people. His technique included positioning them at an angled corner. His sets had an unfinished feel to them which conveyed the feeling of deception that he believed self portraits could have.
Vogue Covers 1934-2004
In total Penn photographed 165 Vogue covers, eclipsing any other photographer to date. He photographed many Vogue models and even married one. Lisa Fonssagrives was the equivalent of a super model in her time. She was also the highest paid model of that time period and her ability to pose effortlessly caught Penn attention and admiration. After they married they continued their work relationship as Vogue model and photographer. Their collaborations produced some of the most famous Vogue covers in fashion publication history. The extravagant changes in fashion during the 40’s and 50’s allowed Penn to create stare worthy photographs. Wide brimmed hats, cinched waist and billowy skirts created dramatic silluhotues for photography.
Vogue Years 1947-51
After conquering portraits Penn’s mentor Lieberman wanted him to get a full education on what it meant to be a fashion photographer. In Lieberman’s eyes he was still rough around the edges. Lieberman sent him to Paris to watch all the couture fashion shows to familiarize himself with the fashion scene. The massive thrall of fashion photographers vying for perfect shots in between editors and the rest of the fashion pros was overwhelming for Penn. He preferred a quiet and private studio, so one was appointed for him while in Paris. There the collections and models were brought to him to shoot, leading to his meeting with wife Lisa. In his Paris studio he shot the latest fashions by designers such as Balenciaga.
Penn liked to see what his worked looked like in different forms of prints. The first process included taking one photograph and printing it via a gelatin silver print in 1949. Forty years later he printed the same picture on the newest gelatin silver print. He then printed the pictures in the 1960’s through the method of contact printing. Contact printing was considered an antique method of printing at this time. His method included enlarging negatives to his desired size and mounting each version to aluminum and coat them with layers of platinum and palladium. His experiments with types of print, tones, shadows, colors, scales and papers gave him freedom as a photographer. While other photographers strived for consistently perfect photography Penn searched for the interesting in each version.
In November of 1948 Penn went on a fashion assignment for Vogue to Lima, Peru. After he completed the assignment he traveled Peru on his own. He found himself in Cusco’s Andes mountains where he rented a studio for portrait taking. There he photographed the locals and passing visitors in their traditional wool clothing. These portraits introduced a deeper physiological affect to his photography. So much so that Vogue ended up printing these pictures in the story “Christmas in Cuzco” in their 1949 December issue. This publication helped bring images of people and cultures America knew little to none about. Although Penn shot the pictures in black and white, Vogue published them in color. Giving the vibrant local clothing an opportunity to shine.
Small Trades 1950-51
During July of 1950 Penn was once again shooting couture collections for Vogue in Paris. While there he took on a new project of photographing trade workers. He continued the project making it his longest series ever by capturing the trade workers of London and New York City. His techniques included photographing the small trades workers in their work attire and tools on the same studio he shot models and famous clients. The set, lighting and backdrop for his small trade series were the exact same in his fashion photography. He felt that doing so equalized the workers to the elite that he photographed. Vogue once again published these pictures in their 1950’s publication.
During this time period Penn experimented with the silver process of printing and overexposing his pictures. After this process he then bleached them which produced different prints.
Classic Portraits 1948-62
At this point in Penn’s career he was one of the most sought out photographers in fashion and beyond. He worked for Vogue while also working in advertising. People who were asked to sit for Penn no matter how famous or wealthy considered it an honor. To prepare himself for the task of these portraits Penn studied the art of Goya, Daumier and Toulouse-Lautree. Their work conveyed focus, lighting and immediacy that Penn hoped to convey in his portraits. For Penn the toughest part about photographing a famous person was getting them to drop their persona. Penn did so by meeting them in simple blue jeans and talking over coffee before beginning. During the session Penn would encourage his client to be as comfortable as they wanted to be. In the end their relaxed nature gave Penn the exact picture he wanted.
In the 1950’s Penn worked on ads for cigarette ads, although he despised the act of smoking. His cigarette series was a look at how society was in a disruptive time in history. Riots, Vietnam war, police corruption and New York City in bankruptcy and the governments willingness to promote cigarettes inspired the photos. Around this time his mentor Alexey Brodovitch died of cancer in result to his smoking habit. The smashed cigarette buds in gutters signified a painful moment in time not only for Penn but for the country.
Worlds in a Small Room
After serving in WWII Penn was inspired to travel the world and take pictures of different cultures. During 1967-71 he did just that for Vogue. With only a tent to serve as a studio Penn photographed locals of the Pacific and Africa. Although he did not intend on it, these pictures are reminiscent of invaders colonizing a newly conquered world. Vogue once again published the pictures, focusing on the local clothing and jewelry that were already inspiring the fashion of the 60’s.
The photos in this collection range from the 60’s to the 21st century. Inspirations include the youthquake and modern fashion of the 60’s. Theses pictures also explore the notions of nostalgia, fantasy, lost innocence and vanity. Penn was also inspired by the death of his wife in 1992 and his own aging. For Penn there was beauty in death and this inspiration was used in his late fashion photograph.
Late Still Life
Throughout the years working at Vogue Penn not only did many creative jobs for the magazine but also shot still life photography on his own time. From 1975- 2007 he produced four series of still life. Street Material, Archaeology, Vessels and Underfoot were the titles of these four projects. The subjects were rags, metal parts, old bottles and other miscellanies items. He liked to sketch these items and find a way to bring the items to life in his photography. He achieved this through his positioning or pairing of the items.
I always knew of this iconic photographer due to his revered fashion photography but it was so interesting learning about Irving Penn the man. He was a constant student of his craft willing to push himself past the norms. His work brought different cultures and fashions closer to western civilization. His ability to transcend a persons personality and give life to a still object is what made him the most revered photographer of his time.
Had you heard of Penn? What are your thoughts, let me know in the comments and on social media.
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