Irving Penn: Other Ways of Being

Art & Lit Fashion

Irving Penn, born 1917 New Jersey, was one of the world’s most iconic fashion photographers, and a driving force behind the success and longevity of Vogue with his illustrious 50 plus year career with the Condé Nast publication.

Born to a film director and producer, his artistic vision from the perspective of a lens seems undeniably interwoven with his upbringing. Yet his true potential was fostered during his years spent studying at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (university of the arts), during which time he already held his first job at Harper’s Bazaar. Rather than publishing his photography, which would later gain him his renown, it was his drawing which was regularly featured.

After spending time as a freelance designer and amateur photographer, he became the art director at Saks New York. He later took the position of associate in the art department of Vogue which was just the start of a truly marvellous collaboration between the two. It was in 1943 that Penn shot his first Vogue cover, and from then on continued to shoot covers, portraits, photographic essays and still life shots for the magazine until his death in 2009. Penn’s renown grew along with his expanding clientele spanning from De Beers to Issey Miyake and Clinique. It was during his high profile shoots that he met his wife and muse, Lisa Fonsagrives, a successful fashion model at the time.

Whilst he was known most prominently for his fashion photography, his work spans numerous genres: he is celebrated for his portraits, minimalist still life, ethnographic photographs from around the world and photographic travel journals. He is even credited with shaping the post-war feminine chic photography of the 20s. He was a trailblazer for photographic minimalism, being one of the first mainstream photographers to use simple grey or white backdrops, and incorporating awkward angles and corners into the background composition.

His work may indeed be strikingly Modernist, but he also managed to escape categorisation. One of his most provocative collections was a series of photographs of naked women of all proportions and, although captured in the 1940s, it was only exhibited in the 1980s due to the social pressures and attitudes towards the naked body. Irving Penn was evidently decades in front of his contemporaries, both in terms of artistic vision, and social attitude.

Indeed, it was Penn who said “photographing a cake can be art”, which may encapsulate the very essence of his work. Even in the simplicity and mundanity of his subject, he managed to extract art; an optimistic view of the commonplace.