rving Penn (June 16, 1917 – October 7, 2009) was an American photographer known for his fashion photography, portraits, and still lifes. Penn's career included work at Vogue magazine, and independent advertising work for clients including Issey Miyake and Clinique. His work has been exhibited internationally and continues to inform the art of photography.
Irving Penn was born to a Russian Jewish family on June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey. Penn's younger brother, Arthur Penn, was born in 1922 and would go on to become a film director and producer. Penn attended Abraham Lincoln High School where he studied graphic design with Leon Friend.
Penn attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) from 1934 to 1938, where he studied drawing, painting, graphics, and industrial arts under Alexey Brodovitch. While still a student, Penn worked under Brodovitch at Harper's Bazaar which published several of Penn's drawings.
Penn worked for three years as a freelance designer taking his first amateur photographs before taking Brodovitch's position as the art director at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1940. Penn remained at Saks Fifth Avenue for a year before leaving to spend a year painting and taking photographs in Mexico and across the US. When Penn returned to New York, Alexander Liberman offered him a position as an associate in Vogue magazine's Art Department. Penn worked on layout for the magazine before Liberman asked him to try photography.
Penn's first photographic cover for Vogue magazine appeared in October 1943. The art department of the Office of War Information in London offered him a job as an "artist-photographer" but he volunteered with the American Field Service instead. He photographed the soldiers, medical operations, and camp life for the AFS.
After sailing back to New York in November 1945, Penn continued to work at Vogue throughout his career, photographing covers, portraits, still-lifes, fashion, and photographic essays.
In the 1950s, Penn founded his own studio in New York and began making advertising photographs. Over the years, Penn's list of clients grew to include General Foods, De Beers, Issey Miyake, and Clinique.
Penn met Swedish fashion model Lisa Fonssagrives at a photo shoot in 1947. In 1950, the two married at Chelsea Register Office, and two years later Lisa gave birth to their son, Tom Penn, who would become a metal designer.
Best known for his fashion photography, Penn's repertoire also included portraits of creative greats; ethnographic photographs from around the world; Modernist still-life works of food, bones, bottles, metal, and found objects; and photographic travel essays.
Penn's still life compositions are sparse and highly organized, assemblages of food or objects that articulate the abstract interplay of line and volume. Penn's photographs are composed with a great attention to detail, which continues into his craft of developing and making prints of his photographs. Penn experimented with many printing techniques, including prints made on aluminum sheets coated with a platinum emulsion rendering the image with a warmth that untoned silver prints lacked. His black and white prints are notable for their deep contrast, giving them a clean, crisp look.
Penn was among the earliest photographers to pose subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop and he effectively used its simplicity. Expanding his austere studio surroundings, Penn constructed a set of upright angled backdrops, to form a stark, acute corner. Subjects photographed with this technique included Charles James, John Hersey, Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Marlene Dietrich, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, W. H. Auden, and Igor Stravinsky.
While steeped in the Modernist tradition, Penn also ventured beyond creative boundaries. The exhibition Earthly Bodies consisted of series of posed nudes whose physical shapes range from thin to plump; while the photographs were taken in 1949 and 1950, they were not exhibited until 1980.
The Art Institute of Chicago holds the Irving Penn Paper and Photographic Archives, which were donated to the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries and the Department of Photography in 1995. In addition, the Art Institute of Chicago has more than 200 of Penn's fine art prints in its collection, and has mounted several exhibitions of work by the artist including the retrospective Irving Penn: A Career in Photography (1997–1998) which traveled internationally as well as Irving Penn: Underfoot (2013).
The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) possesses a large collection of Penn's works, including a silver gelatin print of Penn's The Tarot Reader, a photograph from 1949 of Jean Patchett and surrealist painter Bridget Tichenor. In 2013, the museum received 100 images as a gift from the Irving Penn Foundation, significantly increasing the number of Penn's works in the collection to 161 images. The Irving Penn Foundation's gift formed the basis of the exhibition, Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, which was shown at SAAM before traveling to other museum venues around the United States.
Irving Penn died on October 7, 2009 at his home in Manhattan, aged 92.