This past week, the international fashion community lost one of the foremost photographers of our time. Known for his innovative development techniques and classically staged portraits, Irving Penn’s career has been an inspiration to many, and has solidified his revered place as a master artist.
Born in 1917 in Plainfield New Jersey, Penn’s artistic career started when he enrolled at what is now the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He studied drawing and graphic and industrial design, and caught the eye of one of his professors, Russian designer Alexev Brodovitch. Brodovitch at the time was working for Harper’s Bazaar and hired Penn on as his unpaid assistant, and acted as a mentor for Penn during and just after his school years.
After his graduation, Penn moved to New York City in 1940 to start a position as the Director of Advertising Design at Saks Fifth Avenue. Having spent less than a year in that position, Penn decided to replace himself at Saks and move to Mexico to be a painter. The man he chose to fill his shoes was Alexander Lieberman, soon after to be the Art Director of Vogue. Penn returned to New York a short time later, and Liberman returned the favor by hiring him as an Assistant at Vogue. Penn’s initial task was overseeing the cover design, but before long, at Liberman’s suggestion, Penn shot a still life that appeared on the cover of the October 1943 issue – the first of over 150 covers that he shot for the magazine.
During World War II, Penn traveled to Italy to drive an ambulance for the American Field Service, during which he began to shoot his signature black-and-white portraits. After the war ended, Penn returned to Vogue as a staff photographer, photographing everything from still life accessories to feature portraits.
In the 1960’s, Penn began to print (and reprint) all of his own work using the laborious Platinum Printing process. This somewhat antiquated process involved mixing and hand-coating exotic chemicals onto drawing paper and required a much longer development time in the darkroom. The result is the luminous, velvet quality that viewers have become so accustomed to.
Penn continued to work for Vogue and other fashion and lifestyle clients for over 40 years, shooting some of the most widely recognized photos in American photography. His work has been published in a number of books, and has appeared in countless exhibitions at prestigious venues such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, and the National Portrait Gallery.