May 31, 2017

Irving Penn


Irving Penn, Lisa Fonssagrives in Rochas Mermaid Dress, NY, 1947. © The Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn Trust. 



Irving Penn, Peeled Apple, 1977. © The Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn Trust. 


"A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it; it is in one word, effective." —Irving Penn.


From portraiture to fashion to still life, American-born Irving Penn was a multifaceted master of photography. Born in 1917 to a Russian Jewish familly in New Jersey, Penn’s passion for images led him to be hired at Harper’s Bazaar when he was only a student. He spent a whole year painting in Mexico before he made the decision to return to the United States.


Considered a Modernist, he pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable at the time. He’s known for his luxurious black and white fashion prints as well as his rich colors. At 26, he had begun designing photo covers for Vogue. Some of his best known images featured his wife, Swedish-born model Lisa Fonssagrives. Penn’s eye for minimal, modern compositions set him apart from his contemporaries. Because his photos did not include props or sets, the model became the undistracted focus of the image. Generally Penn used a solid or simple background and no props to emphasize the subject. His photos were featured in countless publications including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and TIME. His advertising clients included De Beers, Clinique, and Issey Miyake.


Penn’s images were not limited to fashion photography. He was a talented portrait photographer with an innate ability to draw out his subjects’ personality. Penn captured images of notable people from John F. Kennedy to Audrey Hepburn, Pablo Picasso to Marlene Dietrich. However, he’s also known for his portraits of less well-known subjects, like the fishmongers of London or tiny children in their native Peru. Whoever the subject, Penn’s facility for drawing out the personality of his subjects is evident. 


Penn died in 2009 leaving behind a dazzling legacy of fashion, advertising, and still life photography. His work can be seen currently in an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in honor of his 100th birthday, from April 24-July 30.