Saturday, November 13, 2010

Irving Penn (1917-2009), Portraits and Still Lifes

Irving Penn - Family with Mother Nursing Child
Family with Mother Nursing Child, Cusco, Peru

This is a continuation of my previous post about the gifted photographer, Irving Penn.


Irving Penn carried the same minimalistic technique he used in his fashion photos through his work in portraiture. Even when traveling in remote locations, he created makeshift studios to eliminate any visual elements that may detract from his sitters. His sitters ranged from anonymous tribesmen from the Andes to butchers in Paris...

Bouchers, Paris, 1950© Estate of Irving Penn 

...or celebrities with household names.

Truman Capote, New York, 1948, Copyright, The Irving Penn Foundation

Penn went to great lengths to create an effective portrait. In his early portraits, he created a tight corner on his set to create an intimate space. For some subjects, the corner provided great comfort, for others it was stifling.

The Duchess of Windsor, New York, 1948
National Portrait Gallery, London © The Irving Penn Foundation

Spencer Tracy, New York, 1948


 In later portraits, Penn abandoned the corner, opting to capture the sitter closely, with almost no space devoted to background. Each portrait reveals the essence of the sitter, like Grace Kelly's effortless elegance...

Grace Kelly by Irving Penn, 1954
Grace Kelly, 1954
...Yves St. Laurent's shyness...

Yves St. Laurent, 1983

...and the ultimate minimalist portrait of Miles Davis.

Above all, he always showed great respect for his subjects:
"Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. ...Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe." —Irving Penn, 1975.


Penn's group portraits are always beautifully balanced with deliberate composition.

Top Models in 1947
They are still inspirational for contemporary photographers.

Steven Meisel, Vogue, May 2007

Still Lifes
Penn’s fascination with still lifes remained for all his life. Particularly fond of found objects, he famously said, “Photographing a cake can be art.” His still life images showcase his genius for composition and lighting.

Theater Accident
New York, 1947

After-dinner Games
New York, 1947

© Estate of Irving Penn   

Salad Ingredients
New York, 1947

© Estate of Irving Penn 

Later in his life Penn published a book of where he shared his love for flowers

Irving Penn - Poppy from his book Flowers

even when they were past their prime:

In 1977 he exhibited still lifes composed of street findings, including flattened trash retrieved out of the gutter. No doubt a response to his immersion in an industry that idolized youth and beauty for beauty’s sake.

Street Findings
New York, 1999

© Estate of Irving Penn 
All of Penn’s work showcases his genius for composition, lighting, and technique and his commitment to photographic fidelity is evident throughout his body of work.

Works Cited
"Quiet Passing Vogue, October 1, 1943. – Blue Filter." Blue Filter. Web. 19 Oct. 2010.
"Irving Penn, A Career in Photography." Traditional Fine Arts Organization. Web. 19 Oct. 2010.
"IRVING PENN (B. 1917) | Black and White Vogue Cover, 1950 | Photographs Auction | 1950s, Photographs | Christie's." Christie's - Fine Art Auctions | Contemporary Modern Paintings | Jewelry Auction House | Antique Furniture. Web. 19 Oct. 2010.
"IRVING PENN (B. 1917) | Black and White Vogue Cover, 1950 | Photographs Auction | 1950s, Photographs | Christie's." Christie's - Fine Art Auctions | Contemporary Modern Paintings | Jewelry Auction House | Antique Furniture. Web. 19 Oct. 2010.
"Irving Penn." Photography Workshops and Photo Seminars On-line. Web. 19 Oct. 2010.
"Irving Penn." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 19 Oct. 2010.
Penn, Irving, Alexandra Arrowsmith, Nicola Majocchi, and Nicholas Callaway. Passage: a Work Record. New York: Knopf, 1991. Print.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Irving Penn (1917-2009)

Jean Patchett
I thought I would share a research paper I wrote for my beginning photography class. I've always admired Irving Penn's photography; it was a joy to learn more about this gentle, creative artist.

Irving Penn, Photograph by Bert Stern/Associated Press
Early Life
Irving Penn was born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1917 and received a degree in advertising design from the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art in 1938. He began his career as an art director for Junior League magazine and later for Saks Fifth Avenue. In 1942 quit his job to pursue painting. After one year in Mexico, he abandoned the effort, concluding he would never be more than a mediocre painter.

Upon his return, he was offered to be the stylist for the cover of October 1, 1943 issue of Vogue magazine. He created a still life, featuring an enormous topaz, and was then asked to also photograph the scene. It was Vogue Magazine’s first color cover.

Vogue Magazine’s First Color Cover
October 1, 1943
Thus began his long illustrious photographic career and his fifty-year association with Vogue magazine, where he completed 160 cover assignments.

Vogue 1946 Summer cover

Lisa Fonssagrives

Lisa Fonssagrives, Vogue UK, January 1950

Wilhelmina Cooper, American Vogue  February 1st,1963..
Image credit

Wilhelmina Cooper, American Vogue February 1st,1964.

Wilhelmina Cooper, American Vogue April 1st 1965.
Image credit
May 2004 Vogue featuring Nicole Kidman in Christian Lacroix

Click to view large
In 1950, Penn married his favorite model, Lisa Fonssagrives, who was credited with being the first supermodel.

Balenciaga Mantle Coat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn)
Paris, 1950 

Lisa Fonssagrives

Lisa Fonssagrives

Penn revolutionized fashion photography. He was a pioneer in creating a clean, simple fashion photographs emphasizing line and silhouette. He favored the studio setting and stripped away all props creating a minimalist look using only simple planes of neutral color as a backdrop. As a testament to his formal training in advertising design, he never forgot that the fashion products must be the star of his photos. Removing all irrelevant objects served to achieve this goal.

The photo used for the April 1, 1950 cover of Vogue, named “The Black and White Idea”, sold for $481,000 at Christie’s Auction House in 1985.

Jean Patchett, April 1, 1950 Vogue Magazine

The photo shows model Jean Patchett from the waist up wearing a black and white ensemble. Penn styled the shot with perfect balance, symmetry and obsessive precision. The backdrop is stark white, giving the greatest contrast possible for the mostly-black silhouette. Each fashion detail is highlighted: the wide-brimmed felt hat, the black neck scarf, and the short sleeves with split cuffs contrast to strike a precise silhouette against the white backdrop. The bird-cage netting and Patchett’s deep red lipstick, which reads black in black & white photos, contrast with her light complexion. Her eyes, looking to her extreme right, reveal the maximum whites, lest they get lost behind the netting. The elbow-length gloves were cropped away for the cover, creating an even stronger contrast. Given how the masthead and text of the cover fits comfortably in the white space without ever detracting from the photo, I’m guessing that Penn retained control over final layout. The overall result is a striking magazine cover that is arresting even if viewed from across the street. I have no doubt the cover generated countless inquiries about each piece of this ensemble.

Next time, Irving Penn's portraiture and still lifes. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Macro Monday: Radicchio

IMG_7973 radicchio
Radicchio - Leaf Chicory (Cichorium intybus)

Two reasons that are keeping me from blogging as much as I would wish are that I've been ill for the past two weeks and I'm taking a beginning photography class that is consuming most of my available time. Last week our assignment was to emulate, but not copy exactly, a famous photographer or other artist. I chose to emulate photographer Irving Penn (1917 - 2009). In 1980, he published "Flowers" after working on the book for seven summers. This beautiful purple tulip was his cover image:

Photo by Irving Penn

I did not have time to run up to the flower mart to find tulips, but I thought the radicchio was a close enough approximation. To teach us the discipline to frame during a shot rather than in post-production, cropping is not permissible for this class. I would have probably cropped my image square, like Penn's tulip.

See more of Irving Penn's flowers here. My other emulations are here and visit other Macro Monday posts here
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