Irving Penn

Born in New Jersey of the United States Irving Penn was and continues to be an influential photographer within the portrait, fashion and still life genres. Attending the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art Penn studied painting, drawing, graphics and industrial art from Alexey Brodovitch which gave Irving his first foray into the commercial sector with having a few of his drawings published in Harpers Bizarre. After spending some time traveling the US and Mexico Irving returned to New York, subsequently taking up a position within Vogue’s Art Department before being asked to consider photography, then in October 1943 Irving Penn appeared on the cover of Vogue for which Penn continued to focus on photography for the magazine, with portraits, still lifes, covers and essays. Continuing into the 50’s Penn started his own studio and began working on advertising images for a number of national clients.

Irving Penn continues to be best know for his Fashion Photography, continuing to exhibit around the world due to his interesting and in some respects ground breaking techniques, by being one of the first photographers to shoot a model against an almost solid grey or white it focused the viewer solely on the model, adding to the importance of stance, facial expression and eye contact.

Within his still life work we can clearly see an organised and controlled individual, still life photography gives the photographer the most control possible, as they are able to effect and manipulate every single variable to ensure the overall image they produce is what they intended, I have read and taken in Irving Penn’s book “Still Life” Published in 2001 it is a varied collection of his still life work from flowers, to vegetables and fruit, products and also things he has found on the floor of New York. Which I find to really add depth to his work while also continuously making the viewer question what he is seeing and its intended purpose. The image “Poppy, Glowing Embers” an editorial image for Vogue taken in 1968 is an exquisite example of his still life work, capturing the perfect lines and depths within the flower with the shade and colour creating a beautiful captivating image, couple with the little drops of water as added interest it really pulls the viewer into the image, similar in a way to a portrait. In comparison to this, Irving Penn also did a series of images on Cigarettes found in the streets. Looking at image “Cigarette No.85” taken in New York in 1972, I struggle to understand the overall purpose of either the collection or individual images, personally they do not strike a resonance with me nor do they compel me to look further, looking at this image individually the only compelling element is the tonal range of the image, where the image has been given an interesting texture due to this which adds an element of interest.

Looking again at the still life images of flowers by Irving Penn and also at the image “Pear with Seeds” taken in New York in 1993, It reminds me of a similar selection of images I created for a previous course, using composition and a solid background to truly focus the viewer on the texture, detail and form of the subject. I can see the similarities in composition and in the obvious sense of idea but also although mine is in colour, effectively showing the range of green and yellow, Irving’s image of the pear gives an even more interesting and striking image by being lit stinger on the left, this gives an attractive tonal range that compliments the form and lines. For a further look at my product/still life work please look here to further understand my technique and style in comparison to Irving Penn. truth I find Irving Penn’s work, spanning the entirety of his career to be a wonderful and captivating insight to a photographer who took not only great pride in his work but also continued to build upon his experience and knowledge and technology, fashion and trends changed, enabling him to continue to be at the top of his profession for a number of decades. His ability to play between dynamism and austerity is the true trademark of his 60plus-year oeuvre. From his stunning and at times controversial still lives to his pioneering and stunning portraits Penn’s patient yet restless search for truth behind the enigma of the human face is only clear to see when reviewing his portrait images.

I have found the Irving Penn book ‘Still Life’ to be an exquisite showcase of a photographer with an insatiable aptitude for controlling an image, using all that is available and sometimes very little to create a photograph with breathtaking simplicity and yet to the trained eye this is never the case, the care and attention taken to each frame is one of the reasons, personally why Irving Penn is one of the greatest photographers, his attention to detail and ability to create, control and capture the finest of elements inspires me and motivates me.

Please see this work in connection with the planning of the fourth Art of Photography assignment, Light.


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