Irving Penn  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Irving Penn (June 16, 1917 - October 7, 2009) was an American photographer known for his portraiture and fashion photography.



Early career

Irving Penn studied under Alexey Brodovitch at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) from which he graduated 1938. Penn's drawings were published by Harper's Bazaar and he also painted. As his career in photography blossomed, he became known for post World War II feminine chic and glamour photography.

Penn worked for many years doing fashion photography for Vogue magazine, founding his own studio in 1953. He was among the first photographers to pose subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop and used this simplicity more effectively than other photographers. Expanding his austere studio surroundings, Penn constructed a set of upright angled backdrops, to form a stark, acute corner. Posing his subjects within this tight, unorthodox space, Penn brought an unprecedented sense of drama to his portraits, driving the viewer's focus onto the person and their expression. In many photos, the subjects appeared wedged into the corner. Subjects photographed with this technique included Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, W. H. Auden, Igor Stravinsky and Marlene Dietrich.

While a master of the studio flash, most of Penn's portraits are lit with window light. For travelling to New Guinea and other locations to photograph indigenous people, Penn created a portable studio with a skylight deployed facing north with impressive results. These pictures had the same feel as his portraits of celebrities; fully adorned, naturally lit, yet placed before the neutral backdrop, his tribal subjects appear as strangely defined models for a 19th-century ethnographic investigation.

In 1950, Penn married his favorite model, Lisa Fonssagrives, who died in 1992. They had one son together, designer Tom Penn.

Penn's younger brother is movie director, Arthur Penn.


Clarity, composition, careful arrangement of objects or people, form, and the use of light characterize Penn's work. Penn also photographed still life objects and found objects in unusual arrangements with great detail and clarity.

While his prints are always clean and clear, Penn's subjects varied widely. Many times his photographs were so ahead of their time that they only came to be appreciated as important works in the modernist canon years after their creation. For example, a series of posed nudes whose physical shapes range from thin to plump were shot in 1949-1950, but were not exhibited until 1980.

His still life compositions are skillfully arranged assemblages of food or objects; at once spare and highly organized, the objects articulate the abstract interplay of line and volume.


He has published numerous books including the recent, "A Notebook at Random" which offers a generous selection of photographs, paintings, and documents of his working methods.

The permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum possesses a silver gelatin print of Penn's The Tarot Reader, a photograph from 1949 of Jean Patchett and surrealist painter Bridget Tichenor.

The Irving Penn Archives, a collection of personal items and materials relating to his career, are held by the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago.


In 2002, 53 photos were shown in a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In many of these prints, the subjects appear sculptural and like a primitive Venus. The graphic detail and clarity of his images would not have been possible to put on display in earlier years.

In July 2005, Penn's work was shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in an exhibit titled "Irving Penn: Platinum Prints."

Between January and April 2008, 67 portraits are shown at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City in an exhibit titled "Close Encounters".

In September 2009, the J. Paul Getty Museum plans to exhibit the most extensive collection of Irving Penn's works. The Small Trades is a collection of 252 full-length portraits by Penn from 1950 to 1951. Penn's subjects were from New York, Paris, and London.


Irving Penn died aged 92 on 7th October 2009, at his home in Manhattan.


"Photographing a cake can be art" —Irving Penn.

Books by Penn

Books about Penn

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Irving Penn" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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