Last year, I read about a retrospective exhibit of the American photographer, Irving Penn (June 16, 1917 - 2009). The retrospective was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in conjunction with The Irving Penn Foundation as a celebration of the artist’s 100th birthday. For those of you visiting, or living in, Germany, the Centennial exhibit is now on view at the C/O Berlin (March 24 - July 1, 2018). If you are lucky enough to visit the exhibit of over 240 works created by this prolific artist whose photographic career spans seven decades and encompass multiple genres, I am going to admit, right up front, I am several shades of green with envy.
But who was Irving Penn? Chances are good that you have seen one of his images but just did not know the name of the artist.
Penn was trained in drawing and painting, and while he abandoned his painting career, the fundamentals of composition and design served him throughout his career in photography. His signature style is sometimes described as graphic, concise, minimalistic, elegant, and, most of all, artistic. And, it was his artistic training that led him to a sixty-year career with Vogue magazine.
While employed at Vogue magazine, Penn was encouraged to photograph some of his layout designs for the magazine, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Penn also explored personal work with his camera. Some of his personal projects include:
- Small Trades - a series of portraits of urban laborers
- Street Material
- Portraits of indigenous people
- Portraits of cultural figures
- Color studies of flowers
- “Morandi” still-lifes
As I have mentioned before, my work does not generally include portraits. But, I do appreciate a portrait that is done well, and Penn’s portraits are the top of the heap. A couple of things that interest me about Penn’s portraits is (i) he used a discarded theater curtain as a backdrop throughout his career - I’m not sure why that fascinates me, but it does, and (ii) he placed many of his famous subjects in the corner of two intersecting “walls”. The way he was able to distill his images down to the essentials, especially the essentials of a person, is all part of his distinctive style.
I have linked a video below that Ted Forbes - The Art of Photography made concentrating on Penn’s portrait work. It is a great primer and I also included a link to my Pinterest board of Irving Penn images. I hope you will take a look.
The Irving Penn Foundation
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Don’t miss the short video about the exhibit)
The Art of Photography video about Irving Penn
My Pinterest Board for Irving Penn
The New York Times