Irving Penn paved the way for modern photography by seamlessly crossing borders between high fashion and fine art. During the course of his career, Penn produced images that would grace the covers of Vogue while simultaneously appearing on the walls of galleries. As one of the most influential photographers of his time, he earned respect among the elite and established members of both the fashion and art worlds.
Penn captured moments and people in a way that no one else could. He controlled the environment. He carefully posed his subjects. The way he placed his models revealed something about their personality that could otherwise have been overlooked. He was a fashion photographer with the eye of an artist that led audiences to question conventional notions of how beauty is defined.
To celebrate the artist in tandem with The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s major retrospective of his work (currently running until July 30), as well as Phillips’ and Sotheby’s “Photographs” sales on May 18 and May 19 respectively, we’ve highlighted some of his most noteworthy photographs that are sure to stand the test of time.
In his early portraits, Penn pushed the envelope and developed his own style. These shots reflect motifs that appear in his later fashion photography: bare settings, awkward body angles and a sense of discomfort on the part of the subject.
Penn’s favorite subject and wife, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, launched the concept of a supermodel. She graced the covers of Vogue, Life, Time, and Vanity Fair, renown for her natural elegance and body awareness. Prior to her modeling debut she was a ballerina and a dance instructor, which served her well throughout her career.
Fonssagrives-Penn once said she was but a hanger used to display the clothing. It seems Penn would agree with that description of a model’s role. Their bodies were contorted to highlight the fabric, the folds, and the texture.
Their beauty came through regardless of the unnatural poses, but that in addition to the high fashion they were wearing made them seem almost alien.
In the mid-20th century, Penn created a series of nudes that weren’t printed for almost three decades. At the time they were taken, they were classified as pornographic. In these photographs, he focuses on angles of the body that, out of context, almost appear sculptural.
Penn took a trip to New Guinea in 1970 and set up a makeshift studio to capture the native people. Using a curtain and creative natural lighting, he put together a backdrop reminiscent of his celebrity portraiture. The juxtaposition between the setting and the subject is stark. Like his celebrity portraits, they were fully adorned, appearing almost like models for the ethnographic sketches of early explorers.
Penn wanted to document life, and fashion reveals a lot about society. Values, lifestyle, religion: clues to all of these elements of society can be deduced from a wardrobe. He explored this documentary interest through a series of trips to a variety of remote locations where he would set up studios – much like he did in his trip to New Guinea.
Penn borrowed concepts from minimalism and pruned away anything unnecessary, allowing the fashion, his subject or the object to speak for itself. His foundational knowledge of painting and drawing allowed him to build a photograph. He didn’t just take a photo, he composed it.
Throughout his work, Penn sought to peel back layers and reveal what laid beneath the public’s perceptions. For his portrait subjects, he wanted a glimpse of their soul.
Penn sought to redefine beauty, which led him to shoot a plethora of objects – including trash. His ideal of beauty was so profound that it made a generation pause, admire, and replicate. Not only did he influence the way we think about art, he also showed us that it intersects and influences all aspects of contemporary culture. Penn’s work demonstrates that art is what makes us human.
- Irving Penn, Young Boy, Pause Pause, American South, 1941, printed 2001, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation
- Irving Penn, Salvador Dali, New York, 1947, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation
- Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) Truman Capote, New York, 1948 Platinum-palladium print, 1968 15 7/8 × 15 3/8 in. (40.3 × 39.1 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1986 © The Irving Penn Foundation
- Irving Penn, Nude No. 58, New York, about 1949– 1950, printed 1976, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation
- Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) Tribesman with Nose Disc, New Guinea, 1970 Gelatin silver print, 2002 15 ½ × 15 ⅜ in. (39.4 × 39.1 cm) Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Irving Penn Foundation
- Irving Penn, Sitting Enga Woman, New Guinea, 1970, printed 1986, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation
- Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950 Platinum-palladium print, 1980 19 ⅞ × 19 ¾ in. (50.5 × 50.2 cm) Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © Condé Nast Publications, Inc.
- Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) Naomi Sims in Scarf, New York, ca. 1969 Gelatin silver print, 1985 10 ½ × 10 ⅜ in. (26.7 × 26.4 cm) Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Irving Penn Foundation
- Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986 Dye transfer print 18 ¾ × 18 ⅜ in. (47.6 × 46.7 cm). Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Irving Penn Foundation
- Irving Penn, Issey Miyake Fashion: White and Black, New York, 1990, printed 1992, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation