Irving Penn, elder brother of the famous director Arthur Penn, was born on June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey.
After attending public schools, at the age of eighteen, in 1934 he enrolled at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, where he attended for four years the course in graphics and advertising design, held by Alex Brodovitch , chief editor of Harper's Bazar magazine. While studying to pursue the profession of art director, Penn has worked for the past two summers for Harper Bazaar magazine as a delivery boy and artist apprentice, sketching shoes. At this time he had no thought of becoming a photographer. In 1938 he managed to work as an art director at Junior League Magazine. At the age of twenty-five he left his job and left for Mexico, where he began to paint, but only after one year convinced that he would never become a great artist returns to New York. In 1943 he became assistant to the artistic director of Vogue , Alexander Liberman , creating his first cover in October of the same year, a “still life” made up of fashion accessories (a bag, a glove, a belt) and proposing his own personal glamor style, influenced by graphic studies. Several photographic campaigns related to the fashion world carried out during the 1950s led him to his first international successes.
In 1950, he founded his own studio in New York and continued to develop the work on fashion, which he carried out throughout his life.
In 1967 he created a small travel photographic studio, with which he was able to photograph anywhere in the world and in all conditions. The famous series of Worlds in a small room was born, in which portraits of celebrities and group photographs alternated. In these works, ethnography mixed with fashion.
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In 1977 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York he exhibited the Street Material cycle (street material): photographs depicting the abandoned remains of everyday existence, animated by a new aesthetic value.
In 1986 he presented a new series of still lifes, dedicated to animal skulls.
Since 1943, when he shot his first cover for Vogue, all the most important celebrities passed in front of his lens: personalities from politics, entertainment, culture, actors, artists.
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The most famous models posed for him
His Frekles shots are famous
THE his shots influenced all fashion and portrait photography. With an obsessive and minimalist attention to detail, Penn's work immediately acquired an unmistakable style, based on refined simplicity and always original formal solutions. In work of portrait, Penn often used a particular device: a corner in which his subject was asked to pose. In it, as Penn explained, some people felt safe, albeit a bit trapped, but their reaction to the camera was one of complete availability. Among his subjects taken with this technique we remember: Igor Stravinsky, Marlene Dietrich, the Duchess of Windsor and Spencer Tracy.
Duchess of Windsor
During the numerous travels undertaken for the Vogue services, Penn begins to create impromptu shooting sessions in which he portrays ordinary people he met on the street. These anonymous portraits - taken in a portable studio, in front of the same neutral background that characterizes her fashion photographs - show figures with a strong visual presence, presented with their own clothes, ornaments and work tools, but at the same time estranged. with respect to the contingencies of everyday life. Executed between London, Paris and New York is the famous Small Trades project, where a large number of workers dressed in their work clothes and holding the tools of the trade or profession are portrayed. Each was placed against a plain, side-lit background, the signature lighting that identifies Penn's portraiture
From the small crafts series
A series of portraits, particularly memorable, it was made in 1948, following an assignment from Vogue magazine, during the Christmas period in Cuzco, in the Peruvian Andes and consists of about 200 portraits in color and black and white. All the work took place in a rented studio that had a stone floor, a painted backdrop, a small rug, and a chair similar to a piano stool.
Children of Cuzco
Another series of photographs, which denotes the great versatility of the photographer, was the series of Flowers, commissioned by Vogue for seven years, dedicated to the Christmas edition of the magazine. The shots are treated with a typically pictorial style.