“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it; it is in one word, effective.” – Irving Penn.
Best known for his fashion photography and portraiture, Irving Penn spent over six decades perfecting a unique style, with painstaking attention to detail and composition. He is largely remembered for his work with Vogue magazine and his fashion photography set the standard for documenting couture clothing and women’s wear for decades to come. Penn created an extraordinary 165 covers for the magazine, more than any other photographer. He also contributed singular and enduring portraits of famous figures—including iconic images of Truman Capote, Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keefe, and Pablo Picasso. Vogue’s art director Alexander Liberman coined the term “stoppers” to describe the effect of a Penn photograph on viewers—meaning the image was so striking, it stopped you from turning the page.
After years of traveling the world on assignments, Penn developed a strong preference for photographing subjects in a controlled studio environment that allowed him to focus on a subject’s essence—without the distraction of outside elements. His portrait compositions were sparse and he generally posed his subjects against a simple backdrop, with diffused lighting. His most frequently used background was an aged theater curtain he found in Paris, and he carefully transported it to each studio he used. When traveling, Penn brought with him a tent that would serve as a similar background to his studio environment.
Decades of fashion photography led Penn to be somewhat critical of his own work, avoiding looking at his magazine images because “they hurt too much”. In search of new sources of inspiration, he immersed himself in learning early photo printing techniques. His research led him to a process for printing in platinum and palladium metals (known as platinotype), enlarging negatives for contact printing on hand-sensitized paper, which was adhered to an aluminum sheet so that it could withstand multiple coatings and printings. For the next three decades, Penn printed all of his new work and went back to recreate some of his earlier prints using this method. Supposedly, some prints could take over three days to complete.
In honor of what would have been Irving Penn’s 100th birthday, the Met Gallery has curated an extensive exhibit, Irving Penn: Centennial, that runs through July 30, 2017. The Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, is currently exhibiting Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty through May 29, 2017. We encourage you to visit one (or both) exhibits to witness Penn’s eye for detail and finding the humanity in his subjects.