Irving Penn: An American Great
Essay, Research Paper
Irving Penn is a master pressman who constantly strives for the best presentation of his work. He has regenerated the platinum-palladium procedure and explored new techniques. The combination of innovative photography and meticulous printing has established Irving Penn as one of the most significant photographers of the 20th century.
According to Irving Penn, when he opened his studio in 1953, the act of photographing a bar can be considered as art. He soon proved his statement by producing a series of advertisement illustrations that set a new standard in the industry and earned him a prestigious reputation that has remained unparalleled over time.
Penn is famous for his unique style in both editorial photography and advertisement illustration. He has made a name for himself with his distinct portraits and still life images. Additionally, he has ventured into television commercials to showcase his exceptional talent. As a result, his work has received widespread recognition and praise, establishing him as one of the most imitated contemporary photographers.
Irving Penn was born on June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, NJ. He received his education in public and at the age of 18, he enrolled in a four-year class at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. There, he was taught about publicizing design by Alexey Brodovitch. Alongside pursuing a career as an art manager, Penn also spent two summers at Harper’s Bazaar as an office boy and apprentice artist, sketching locations. Although he had early experience in this field, photography was not initially his intended path.
In addition to his contributions to Vogue magazine (including the American, British, and French editions), Penn’s work has been featured in major photography collections such as the Museum of Modem Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Addison Gallery of American Art, and Baltimore Museum of Art.
In 1958, Popular Photography Magazine recognized Irving Penn as one of the world’s top 10 photographers. Penn clarified that he engages in professional photography primarily to provide financial support for his wife and children.
Following his graduation in 1938, he started working as the art manager for both Junior League magazine and Saks Fifth Avenue section shop. At 25 years old, he chose to resign from his job and use his savings to travel to Mexico where he spent a whole year solely painting. It was during this period that he acknowledged his limited artistic abilities, realizing that he would never surpass mediocrity.
Upon returning to New York, Penn met Alexander Liberman, Vogue magazine’s art manager. Liberman hired him to assist and specifically requested his input on proposing photographic screens for the magazine. Despite other staff photographers not being impressed with his ideas, Liberman recognized their potential and asked Penn to capture the images himself. Using a borrowed camera, Penn utilized his background in art and past experience to arrange a still life composition featuring a large brown leather bag, beige scarf, baseball mitts, lemons, oranges, and an enormous topaz. This photograph became the Vogue screen for the October 1, 1943 issue and marked the start of Penn’s successful photography career.
Penn showed off his incredible abilities
The text highlights the range of skills and creativity possessed by a person in various fields such as editorial illustration, advertisement, photojournalism, portraits, still life, travel, and television.
Technique and style
In his previous work, Penn frequently employed a unique technique in his photography, swapping it out with a new one each time. In one instance, he positioned two backgrounds to create a corner where his subject would enter. According to Penn, this was a way of enclosing people. While some individuals felt safe in this space, others felt confined. These varying reactions made them immediately accessible to the camera. Notable figures captured during this corner phase included Noel Coward, the Duchess of Windsor, and Spencer Tracy.
Another clip in which Penn used an old carpet he had acquired from a store on Third Avenue in New York served as his prop for approximately three months. The carpet blended seamlessly with the background in terms of color and brightness levels. Penn reminisces that the significance conveyed by the carpet was altered depending on how the boxes were positioned underneath it. It proved to be a great contrast with people’s faces. Notably, John Dewey and Alfred Hitchcock were among the prominent subjects featured in this series.
Two notable series of portraits stand out. One was created during Christmas in Cuzco, Peru, while the other was shot in studios located in London, Paris, and New York. The first series was captured in 1948 in the high Andes as part of a specific assignment. With a short break in between flights, Penn convinced a local photographer to rent him his studio. In this makeshift studio with a stone floor, painted backdrop, small rug, and an upholstered chair resembling a piano stool, Penn utilized his Rollei camera to take around 200 portraits, both in color and black-and-white.
The celebrated Small Trades project featured a large number of workers in their work attire, with their trade tools. Each worker was positioned against a field background, with side lighting that is commonly associated with Penn’s depictions.
An in-depth examination of Irving Penn’s extensive body of work challenges the notion that commercial work cannot be considered art. It is commonly believed that the pursuit of art must occur outside of the business world, where the influence of money can somehow corrupt artistic vision. However, when looking at Penn’s work, one cannot deny his technical skill, humor, and keen eye, qualities that rival those found in any fine art photography. Whether studying his raw depiction of dancer Mark Morris or the grotesque mask that conceals artist Cindy Sherman, one cannot help but appreciate Penn as a master of his craft. Additionally, he demonstrates his ability to poke fun at himself in works like Beauty Treatment with Gauze Mask (1997), which not only satirizes the lengths women go through to maintain beauty but also reflects his early years as a painter.
Irving Penn, currently in his 80s and residing in New York City, showcases familiar and simple images in his artwork. However, one should not be fooled as his creative pursuits are intricate yet beautifully logical, ready to charm anyone. His lasting contributions to the art and business of photography ensure that he will be remembered for a long time.