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Irving Penn was an American photographer, born in New Jersey. Known primarily for his fashion photography, Penn's work shows a unique vision and a wide range of subjects.
Early careerIrving Penn studied under Alexy Brodovitch at the Philadelphia Museum School from which he graduated in 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. 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, and Georgia O'Keeffe, W.H. Auden, Igor Stravinsky, and Marlene Dietrich.
While a master of the studio flash, most of Penn's portraits are lighted 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.
In 1950, Penn married his favorite model, Lisa Fonssagrives and he founded his studio in 1953.
Penn's styleClarity, composition, careful arrangement of objects or people, form, and the use of light characterize Penn's work. Penn also photographs still life objects and found objects in unusual arrangements with great detail and clarity.
Known as an "aristocratic" fashion photography, not all of his photos could be called aristocratic. While his prints are always clean and clear, Penn's 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. 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.
LegacyPenn currently lives and works in New York City, and contiues to be a regular contributor to Vogue magazine. 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. Penn's wife, Lisa Fonssagrives died in 1992.
In 2002, 53 photos were shown in a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In many of this 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."