“I myself have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.” – Irving Penn
Stark simplicity. These are the words that come to mind when seeing the work of Irving Penn. No excess, no props, and the paraphernalia most fashion photographers were using at the time had been stripped away. Penn was the first fashion photographer to use blank white space or simple textured backgrounds for his images, letting the fashion speak for itself. Using the line of the model’s figure and the cut of the fabric to fill the empty space, what appears to be simple is layered with complexity. He wanted to “make things manageable enough to record them, to prune away anything inconsequential… because less is more.” Penn’s images can be pointed to as the beginning of modern fashion photography.
Irvin Penn (like his contemporaries, Saul Leiter and Cartier-Bresson) studied drawing and painting at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art in the 1930s. After working as a freelance designer for Harper’s Bazaar for a couple of years, he took some time off to go to Mexico in order to paint. After a year he realized he would never make it as an artist so he came back to New York where he was hired by Vogue to work on the design of the covers. For some reason, he was unable to get the photographers interested in the designs he sketched. The art director, Alexander Liberman, told him to take the photographs himself. The first one he did, a still-life, ended up as the cover of the October 1, 1943 issue. After that, his photographs appeared on more than 150 covers, spanning the next 50 years.
Although Penn was known for his fashion photography, he was not pigeon-holed into that particular genre. He photographed everything, from still-lifes of burnt cigarettes to the butchers in the neighborhood; from artists like Picasso and Giacometti to members of the Hell’s Angels. “The greatest privilege I’ve had in photography,” he said, “is a change of diet. The butchers in between invigorated the fashions. To me it was like a balanced meal.” It didn’t matter what he photographed, either. Every potential image was treated equally, he gave the same amount of meticulous attention to each one, whether photographing Audrey Hepburn or a native tribesman from Papua New Guinea. He was more interested in the style of dress and the pose (gesture) than showing the personality of the individual, so he wasn’t intimidated by celebrity. That doesn’t mean he didn’t know how to interact with his subjects, because he did, “In photographing a woman, you pour out adoration — which you of course genuinely feel — at the same time that you’re being concerned about how the garment hangs, as they say. One without the other is not going to work.”
Penn wanted control over every detail of his images, and it shows. His photographs are near perfection. As he perfected his visual aesthetic, he also experimented with all sorts of cameras, new and old, to find what he liked the best. He tried different printing processes to get exactly what he wanted. In the 60s, he finally settled on a turn-of-the-century process called Platinum printing (or platinotype), that uses platinum and provides a wider tonal range, as well as increased durability over the traditional silver process. Over the next 30 years Penn printed all of his new work, as well as going back and printing a lot of his earlier work. Some prints would take over 50 hours to complete. He would spend more time in the darkroom than actually shooting the photograph. He wanted the prints to be works of art and they needed to be different than the ones printed in the magazines. He thought as a result of the magazine printing process, they lost much of their beauty and richness. Doing the processing and printing himself, he was able to get subtle shifts in the tones so that no two prints were ever alike.
This perfection, which he sought in his images, seemed to contrast with his desire to show the imperfections in the beauty, which most fashion photographers seek to conceal. His style of shooting tended to enhance the flaws. The bare backgrounds mean all we see is the subject itself, there are no distractions to keep us from seeing what is really there. Sometimes the flaws are understated and other times, obvious. His series of nudes, for instance, are not the typically perfect female bodies that are used so prevalently by photographers. Using women with varying physical shapes, from very thin to extremely overweight; he would cut off faces and limbs and photograph them in very unusual poses. They were anything but perfect. He also bleached the prints in order to get rid of the tonal values, which created flat planes of light and shadow, but also resulted in a harshness that is completely opposite to the stereotypical nude portrait.
Though he never drifted far from his artistic roots, Penn defined himself as a photographer, even going so far as to scrape paint off of his early canvases to use as backdrops for his pictures. In his corner portrait series, for example, Penn used artistic tricks, like forced perspective, to bring more life to the photographs. Placing his subjects in a small space between two studio flats, sometimes with a very carefully crumpled rug, not only gave him more freedom by limiting the subjects’ movements, but the leading lines and severe angles created additional drama in the photographs.
Even though Penn’s photography spanned seven decades (he never really retired), his style remained consistent from beginning to end. Every photograph was meant to be a work of art, with form and shape taking precedence over everything else, and he succeeded in that. He was constantly aware of the smallest details and there was nothing in his images that he did not specifically put there. This started on the day he picked up the camera to take that first cover photo for Vogue and continued until his death in 2009. Art critic Richard Woodward said of Penn, “The steely unity of Irving Penn’s career, the severity and constructed rigor of his work can best be appreciated when he seems to break away from the dictates of fashion for magazines. Only then is it clear how everything he photographs — or, at least, prints — is the product of a remarkably undivided conscience. There are no breaks; only different subjects.”
VIDEO: Modern photo shoot, inspired by Penn’s “corner” photographs.