Irving Penn: Artist Portrait

Irving Penn

Born 1917. Died 2009.
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Irving Penn Biography

Known for his portraits, still lifes, and perhaps most famously his fashion photography,
Irving Penn was a seminal figure within the context of 20th century photography. He was
one of the longest serving photographers for Vogue magazine, collaborating with the
publication for over sixty years. Penn was born in 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey, to
Russian immigrant parents, and undertook formal art training at the Philadelphia Museum
School of Industrial Art—though not in photography as it was not yet considered a fine
art—between 1934 and 1938. One of his teachers there, Alexy Brodovitch, was an
outspoken proponent of modernism, and had a profound impact on the younger artist.
Penn eventually worked as Brodovitch’s assistant, and was present for several jobs he
undertook at Harper’s Bazaar.

Following his studies, Penn initially considered himself an aspiring painting, and
he travelled in Mexico in 1941 to work on his craft, but was ultimately unsatisfied with
his pursuits and destroyed his canvases before returning to New York in late 1942. Upon
his return to the city, Alexander Liberman, then the newest art director of Vogue, hired
Penn firstly as an associate to work on layouts, but soon encouraged the artist to try his
hand at photographing for the publication. The encouragement was well founded, as it
launched both a lucrative and long lasting collaboration between the photographer and
the magazine, but also led to Penn pursuing photography as a personal venture, resulting
in a body of work that helped shape photography as a medium and an art form. Penn
consistently preferred working within a studio, perhaps influenced by his early exposure
working at Vogue, so he could create highly controlled environments and easily adjust his
subject matter.

Penn continued to work and travel widely for Vogue until, in the early 1950s, his
work began to be deemed too harsh in character, and his workload was reduced, leading
to his turn to advertisement photography. Over the next decade, with a continual decline
in production value given to monthly publications, Penn became increasingly dissatisfied
with how his images appeared when printed on magazine pages. In reaction, he set up his
own studio where he could experiment with more complex modes of printing, including
processes that were even then considered outdated. The result was several major series
that he completed in the 1970s, which revolved around motifs of found and discarded
materials—a significant departure from the prevailing trends of the time.

Although Penn continued to undertake both commercial and magazine
commissions, he continued to experiment and creatively reinvent in his work throughout
the rest of his career, culminating in a major travelling retrospective hosted by the
Museum of Modern Art in 1984. The artist died in 2009, but The Irving Penn Foundation,
which he established during his lifetime, continues to both preserve and promote his
legacy today.

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