Irving Penn Dies at 92: Pioneer of Modern Fashion, Portrait and Still-Life Photography

Irving Penn, 1960s

Kate Moss, 1996

Kate Moss, 1996

Vogue, Fashion Photograph (Café in Lima), Peru, 1948

Salvadore Dali, New York, 1947

Truman Capote, New York City, 1948

Collette, Paris, 1951

Jean Cocteau, Paris, 1948

Nicole Kidman, Vogue Magazine, May, 2004

Irving Penn Dies at 92: Pioneer of Modern Fashion, Portrait and Still-Life Photography

Irving Penn, a renowned master of American fashion photography whose more simple aesthetic, combined with an often startling erotic sensuality, defined a visual style that he applied to such varied subjects as  fashion design, celebrity portraits and everyday objects, many of them now-famous photographs owned by leading art museums, has died at the age of 92.  In 1943, Penn started contributing to Vogue magazine, becoming one of the first commercial photographers to cross the schism that had separated commercial from art photography.  He did so in part by using the same technique no matter what he photographed: isolating his subject, allowing for scarcely a prop and building a work of graphic perfection through his printing process.  Art critics considered the results to be icons, not just images, each one more artistically powerful than the person or object in the frame.

A notorious perfectionist, he traveled widely, carrying his own studio to the ends of the earth to photograph Peruvians in native dress, veiled Moroccan women or the Mudmen of New Guinea.  Despite his appreciation for the art and craft of beautifully designed fashion, Penn later reached outside of the unreachable world it represents.  To escape or perhaps contest it, in the late 1960s he started photographing crushed cigarette butts and street debris.  He shot the cigarette butts in the same manner that he often photographed fashionable designer dresses, close up, with an intense graphic precision, against a white background.  He then built his negatives into “platinum-palladium” prints, a meticulous and expensive process that involves repeated printings of a negative on one piece of paper to create an extraordinary sense of depth and richness.  New York’s Museum of Modern Art found the cigarette butts exhibit-worthy in 1975. Far-sighted reviewers praised Penn’s ability to turn discarded objects into art, but the contradictions in his work still bothered some critics.

In 1950, while in Paris he went from a session of photographing the Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti to photographing French butchers.  His collection of more than 250 photos of butchers, bakers, street workers and others in the series entitled The Small Trades, was acquired last year by the J. Paul Getty Museum and is on view now through January 10th.

A Tribute: The Photography of Irving Penn

Slide Show: Irving Penn/A Pioneer of Modern Fashion, Portrait and Still-Life Photography

(Please Click on Image to View Slide Show)

Readers can read more about the life and accomplishments of Irving Penn in The New York Times here, and in The Los Angeles Times here.

Reader’s can access a wonderful audio-slide show of Irving Penn’s series entitled The Small Trades, which is presently on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum here.

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