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.


Ruth said...

You did a beautiful job with what you chose to display and write about here. Those initial portraits move me so much.

His tight corner portraits are brilliant. To see how that corner affects his subjects, evoking their own reactions to it, never ceases to intrigue me. Spencer Tracy's reminds me why I am in love with him. :) Melt me.

I had not seen the Miles Davis one. Holy cow. Ask me if I'm inspired. Just ask me. I'll tell you that I can't even talk about it. :|

I can never resist a Vogue magazine with one of those groups shots, inspired by his.

The still lifes! I never knew he did these. They could have been shot yesterday, with all the current photographic sensibilities. Salad ingredients especially seems contemporary. No way would I have guessed 1947.

The flower portraits on white are so effective. And that cigarette butts image, given your interesting observation about youth and beauty, really changes my perspective on him a bit.

I thank you for the time you put into this, I feel inspired, very inspired.

George said...

WOW, WOW, WOW!!! What terrific images and what a terrific post. I am so inspired that I want to grab my camera and run in a thousand directions, through Penn would undoubtedly advise me to remain seated and photograph what is right in from of me.

The tight shots are just amazing. I loved them all, especially the Truman Capote, the Spencer Tracy, and the Duchess of Windsor with the part of her hair part lined up perfectly with the line of the corner in the tight space.

Like Ruth, I was most dazzled by the hand of Miles Davis. If you ever doubt that "less is more," just return to this photograph.

Thanks so much, Dutchbaby. I am not through with this posting. I plan to return to this posting for both pleasure and scholarship.

Have a great week!

CC said...

Beautiful post. Penn has always been a
favorite. These images are among the best.

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing these classic leave me yearning for more! :)

Kala said...

So many superb images - what a talented man. I especially love the hand of Miles Davis and the gorgeous portrait of Grace Kelly!

Ginnie said...

Ruth has taken so much time to respond to your incredible tribute, DB. I can only say DITTO to what she has written. You have a gift for your presentations like this. I'm very inspired!

GailO said...

I am happy to have stopped here in a roundabout way via synchronizing...I thoroughly enjoyed these posts on Irving Penn, a photographer I have admired but realize now that I knew little about. I love your radicchio photo in the style of Penn...genius!

Your photography class is intriguing!

Relyn Lawson said...

The one of Truman Capote is my favorite.

A Cuban In London said...

No wonder I love black and white photography. Many thanks for the text and the images. Thoroughly enjoyed them.

Greetings from London.

graceonline said...

Wonderful collection. Thank you for the time you put into assembling it. Both, the portrait of Grace Kelly (How soft she was! No hard body there.), and the salad ingredients arrested me. Had to stop and look long at them. My mouth waters even now at the humble arrangement of simple foods.

Lisa Gordon said...

This was such an enjoyable and informative post. Thank you for sharing. The portrait of Grace Kelly is magnificent, and definitely my favorite!

Marilyn Miller said...

Gorgeous amazing photography.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Ruth,
Thank you for leaving this wonderfully generous note. I was very happy to recycle my class research project here and thrilled that Penn's work inspired you.

I love Spencer Tracy's relaxed response to the tight corner. It says so much about him, doesn't it?

Penn has so many great images, it was difficult to choose. There are many of Miles Davis and I was quite conflicted between the one and chose and this one:

I like the square angle directly below the thumb, but I like the finger positions and softer lighting of the one I selected.

I think Annie Leibovitz benefited from Irving Penn's group shots too.

It was the still lifes that made me fall completely head-over-heels in love with his work. His sense of design and style are impeccable.

I spent an evening emulating the white-background flowers. It looks easy, but it is incredibly difficult. I had to forgive myself, because he spent seven summers on this work and I only a few hours.

Thank you for your appreciation - it fuels me forward.

Unknown said...

The complete opposite reactions of Capote and Tracy to the corner tell such a story. I love the way Spencer used the wall as a prop rather than feeling closed in by it.

I think that is the most beautiful portrait of Grace Kelly that I've ever seen. She looks so relaxed and carefree in that one. After she married, she was still beautiful, of course, but she always looked as if she had a stick up her butt. heehee. I like seeing her in this informal way.

I agree with Ruth about the salad still life. Who would have thought it was taken 63 years ago?

Love this series, DB.

Relyn Lawson said...

It's Thanksgiving day and we are all piled up watching the parade. So, I have the perfect time to drop by and visit friends. I wanted to tell you that one the things I am thankful for today is blogging and the way it has made my world so much bigger. Thank you for the friendship, the wisdom, and the inspiration I have found here. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, my friend. Happy Thanksgiving! I love you. I miss you.

California Girl said...

Fantastic assemblage of images. My favorites...the Peruvian couple, the butchers (had to look and relook and look again; it's disturbing) and Spencer Tracy (he looks so happy; a rarity). I also love the still lifes. The salad still life makes me want one.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear George,
I can't believe I almost skipped responding to all but one of these wonderful comments -- yours especially was so incredibly enthusiastic and generous. It warmed me that it generated a spark of inspiration in you.

I responded like you did when I first saw the tight shots; it was difficult to choose which ones to feature.Thank you for pointing out the Duchess's hair part. I then observed that the line continues straight down her nose, the "V" of her neckline, her belt buckle, ankle, and to the tip of her shoe. Now I wonder whether she did this naturally or whether Penn posed her so.

Your mention of Grace Kelly in your response to my previous post, prompted me to choose her here. She is simply stunning.

I'm pleased that my infatuation with Penn's work is so well received by serious and talented photographers like you.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear CC,
I realize now that I never commented on your mother's good fortune when she met both Irving and Arthur Penn years ago. That must have left an indelible impression on her!

Dutchbaby said...

Dear tammymcchesney,
There are many images available; be sure to reserve a good chunk of time.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Kala,
You chose a couple of great ones!

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Ginnie,
Thank you, and you are a master travel guide via the photo mosaic! I adore going on tour through Holland with you and Astrid.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Oliag,
Thank you for taking the roundabout way here. Ruth has brought me great riches including wonderful visitors like you. I'm happy you like the radicchio photo; I had fun making the connection with Irving's tulip image.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Relyn,
Yes, I love that Truman Capote portrait too. I was thrilled to find that image with the bones of the tight corner revealed at the same time.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Cuban in London,
Long time no see! So good to have you here; I'm glad you enjoyed the photos.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Kathryn Grace,
I'm glad I was able to "recycle" my photography class research assignment into these pages and that you came here to enjoy it.

I think you are right, softness is the overriding feeling of Grace Kelly's portrait. I have no doubt that this was Penn's aim.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear lisa,
My pleasure! I'm so glad that George left a comment in my previous post about Penn's portrait of Grace Kelly.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Marilyn,
Indeed it is.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Susan,
The tight space was such an ingenious way to corner a personality. Ever since seeing this set-up I wondered how I would react to such a space.

I laughed about what you said about Grace Kelly, post-marriage. I think this portrait shows a radiant beauty with an open heart.

Ruth's observation about the salad still life was spot on.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Relyn,
Thank you for your friendship and for being one of my first blogger friends. I'm so pleased you dropped by with your Thanksgiving wish. We had a great Thanksgiving in Houston.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear California Girl,
I love the Peruvian couple too. I love traditional attire and the unselfconscious way the mother nursed her baby.

Vagabonde said...

I am speechless – so much beauty!

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Vagabonde,
He truly was an incredible artist.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...