Irving Penn was one of the twentieth century's great photographers, known for his arresting images and masterful printmaking. At a time when photography was primarily understood as a means of communication, he approached it with an artist's eye and expanded the creative potential of the medium, both in his professional and personal work.
Born in 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey to immigrant parents, Penn attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts from 1934–38 and studied with Alexey Brodovitch in his Design Laboratory.
Penn's work initially had an ideal outlet on the pages of Vogue, where it was finely reproduced and widely disseminated. In 1943, the new art director at Vogue, Alexander Liberman, hired Penn as his associate to prepare layouts and suggest ideas for covers to the magazine's photographers. Liberman, another Russian émigré who had worked in Paris, looked at Penn's contact sheets from his recent travels and recognized "a mind, and an eye that knew what it wanted to see."
In the early 1970s, Penn closed his Manhattan studio and immersed himself in platinum printing in the laboratory he constructed on the family farm on Long Island, NY. This led to three major series conceived for platinum: Cigarettes (1972, presented at The Museum of Modern Art in 1975), Street Material (1975–76, shown at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977), and Archaeology (1979–80, exhibited at Marlborough Gallery in 1982). Like his earlier Nudes series, this work departed radically from the prevailing uses of photography.
In 1983, Penn re-opened a studio in the city and resumed a busy schedule of commercial work and magazine assignments. The following year, he was honoured with a retrospective curated by John Szarkowski at The Museum of Modern Art, which toured internationally until 1989. After the retrospective, Penn resumed painting and drawing as a creative pursuit, even incorporating platinum printing into his practice.
Penn's creativity flourished during the last decades of his life. His innovative portraits, still life, fashion, and beauty photographs continued to appear regularly in Vogue. The studio was busy with magazine, advertising, and personal work, as well as printing and exhibition projects. Determined to shape the body of work he left behind from such a prolific career, he also carefully structured and reduced his archives. In 2009, Penn died in New York, at the age of 92. During his lifetime, he established The Irving Penn Foundation.
Image © The Irving Penn Foundation.