A “Complete Photographer”

Few photographers have a richer or more diverse legacy than Irving Penn (1917-2009.) He is considered one of the principal photographers of the 20th century. Penn’s technical mastery in the richness of platinum-palladium and silver printing helped move the medium from a primarily commercial field into the world of fine art. His minimalistic approach to a photoshoot often captured everyone from fashion models to native peoples in front of his unmistakable neutral backgrounds. He created powerful, bold images profiling the sitter without distraction. His interest in preserving his subjects’ individuality with a minimum of ornamentation or (retouching) became a signature style of Penn, who emphasized the figure and underlined the identities of his sitters. Essentially, Penn offered a profound, humane approach to the medium. His oeuvre mastered a breadth of genres and created exceptional standards that crossed varied aspects of photography from fashion, portraiture, still lifes, nudes, photo-ethnography, and refuge objects such as gloves and cigarette packs. Penn commanded the role of a “complete photographer” since the middle of the 20th century.

“Irving Penn’s photographs may be as close as photography has gotten to philosophy. They’re like Platonic ideals — pure, stripped down, impossible to imagine in any other way — form as final, definitive function.” Mark Feeney, the Boston Globe.

Penn for Vogue

Irving Penn was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1917. He started his creative journey studying design under Alexey Brodovich (art director of Harper’s Bazaar) and working as a graphic artist in Philadelphia. He moved to New York and worked at Vogue magazine in the mid-1940s under the distinguished editor-in-chief, Alexander Lieberman. Through his command of composition and training in the graphic arts, Penn’s photography began to impress his professional circle and appeared regularly on the covers of Vogue magazine. Here, Penn established his visually arresting and highly sophisticated aesthetic. Throughout the following years, the evolution of his photography leaned towards capturing minimalistic, full-figure portraits, bringing his fine art photography into a realm of conceptual photographic art.

“The background is Penn’s stage, on which he allows his models to act. Be it fashion or portraits, he detaches people from their own social context, isolating them to draw greater attention to their idiosyncrasies. Indeed, by consistently using the same background, he both highlights the individual, pulling him or her out of anonymity, and draws to the clothing. For Penn, every piece of clothing, as soon as it is presented on a specific stage, becomes fashion. From the viewpoint of cultural history, this idea can certainly be justified, even if the style of clothing of earlier centuries changed at a somewhat slower pace.” – Reinhold Mißelbeck, 20th Century Photography.

Penn on Assignment

In 1948, Irving Penn traveled to Peru on assignment for Vogue magazine. He was to photograph the legendary fashion model Jean Patchett. Upon his arrival to Lima, Penn spent the first week of the assignment absorbing the new environment. Finding inspiration in the urban allure of Lima, Irving Penn did something unique to his practice. He shot in the streets, outside of his usual studio setting. Starting with a picture of Patchett leaning against a wall, shoe off, and rubbing a sore foot, Penn captured a realism seldom seen in Vogue magazine. These images of Patchett presented her as an icon of haute couture, living everyday life in an unembellished world.

Penn in Cuzco

After the assignment, Irving Penn stayed in Peru to later travel to Cuzco. In Cuzco, Penn captured images of indigenous Peruvian people that began his interest in ethnographic photography. He would retrospectively cement his legacy as one of the landmark photographers in the medium’s history.

Traveling to the ancient capital of the Inca, Irving Penn had to stay a mandatory week, as planes seldom traveled to the area. During his first days in Cuzco, Irving Penn suffered from altitude sickness, remaining in his hotel for three days. After adjusting to the altitude, Penn’s yearning to capture the local townspeople led him to look for a studio. Fortunately, a Victorian-style studio was in the area, and Penn rented the space for three days from the local proprietor. While renting the studio during the holiday, the ancient city was in a festive spirit, as local Cusqueños and visitors came to the city to trade goods and congregate. Noticing the mounting number of community members gathering for the Christmas holiday, he became intrigued by their appearances, complete with intricate, colorful garments.

“The best for pictures were country people who came to Cuzco from the valleys below or from the hills above to spend a few days shopping in town. Christmas there is not a major holiday; the pagan Fiesta del Sol is more important. But at Christmas there is simply a great market, mostly of toys and sweets for the children.” – Irving Penn.

Irving Penn, Woman and Child in Hats, Cuzco, 1948, Silver Gelatin Photograph
Irving Penn, Woman and Child in Hats, Cuzco, 1948, Silver Gelatin Photograph

The Starting Point of an Enchantment with Ethnographic Photography

Customers found Penn instead of their usual photographer when they arrived at the studio for their annual family portraits. This fortuitous moment marked the starting point of his enchantment with ethnographic photography, as he began the study of human culture and its preservation. These interests in the practice of documentation stayed with him, becoming a seminal consideration to his career.

“When subjects arrived to the studio to be photographed, they found me instead of the proprietor. Instead of them paying me, I paid them for posing. A very confusing affair.” – Irving Penn.

2000 Exposures in 3 Days

Throughout three days, Irving Penn made over 2000 exposures. 11 of those negatives were eventually published by Vogue magazine the following year, in 1949. From these sessions, he photographed children dressed for travel, country folk in their work clothes, and men wearing local fiesta masks, among others. In these pictures, he treats his subjects with the same dedication as the model, Jean Patchett, or in previous studio shoots. His subjects were different from those Irving had captured before but deserved the same treatment through his camera.

Cuzco Portraits

The Cuzco portraits show Penn’s democratizing eye, where the attire and traditional wear could signal a complete departure from Vogue’s haute couture. Penn chose to capture the local people with the same poise and dignity as his high fashion, glamorous models. If he photographed a local mother holding her child, the photograph became a modern Andean Pietà, with the air of the sanctity and beauty of grace.

Irving Penn, Woman Holding Child, Cuzco (Peru)
Irving Penn, Woman Holding Child, Cuzco (Peru), 1948, Silver Gelatin Photograph

Facing the camera, proudly displaying their garments, and holding a defiant pose, were standard features within the small space of Penn’s temporary studio. Penn’s capacity to simultaneously demonstrate the culture of a people through their attire while presenting their originality through facial expression and physical posture was the essence of his masterful photographs. Recalling his body of ethnographic photography as “records of physical presence,” Penn’s “ambulant studio” ultimately traveled the world, preserving vastly different cultures. Penn’s resulting work, beginning with the Cuzco pictures, created a wholehearted record of unreserved humanity for generations.

Controlling the Process from Beginning to End

As Anna Wintour, the legendary editor of Vogue, recalled, “he changed the way people saw the world and our perception of what is beautiful.” Penn was an extraordinarily committed printer. Whether working in platinum or silver, he pushed the range and experimented in the darkroom, where he would test and make the range of both techniques. He controlled the process of photography from beginning to end.

“Irving Penn was one of the twentieth century’s great photographers, known for his arresting images and masterful printmaking. Although he was celebrated as one of Vogue magazine’s top photographers for more than sixty years, Penn was an intensely private man who avoided the limelight and pursued his work with quiet and relentless dedication. At a time when photography was primarily understood as a means of communication, he approached it with an artist’s eye and expanded the creative potential of the medium, both in his professional and personal work.” – Irving Penn Foundation.