Born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1917, the son of a watchmaker and a nurse, Penn studied design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art under the legendary designer Alexey Brodovitch. It was Brodovitch who introduced the young Penn to Vogue’s art director Alexander Liberman in 1946, beginning a relationship with the magazine that lasted a lifetime. The shots he took for Vogue are amongst those which fetch the highest prices at auction today, such as his 1950 cover portrait of Jean Patchett.
Penn took portraits of Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich and the Duchess of Windsor, defying existing conventions for portrait photography by wedging his sitters into corners, seating them on shabby carpets or doing away with props altogether, simply photographing them against a white wall.
His aesthetic was relatively simple, but seemed revolutionary in the 1940s: low-key lighting, plain backgrounds and a direct focus on the sitter. It is perhaps best exemplified by a head-and-shoulders shot of Alberto Giacometti taken in 1950, depicting the great sculptor, hands hidden in the folds of his jacket, staring with an austere intensity.
Penn explained his approach by saying, ‘In portrait photography there is something more profound we seek inside a person, while being painfully aware that a limitation of our medium is that the inside is recordable only so far as it is apparent on the outside.’
In the 1960s, Penn began taking still-life shots of flowers. He’d go on to create a whole book of floral studies — Flowers, published in 1980 — and was still shooting the same subject at the start of this millennium, for example in Iceland Poppy/ Papaver nudicaule (A).
Penn died in 2009, yet the quiet power of his minimal portraits continues to have a profound influence on photographers today.
Woman with Roses on Her Arm (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn in Lafaurie Dress), Paris, 1950