Irving Penn

Irving Penn once said that his formula for a meaningful portrait was to photograph his subjects over several hours, until they let down their guard. This dedication to his art is perhaps why he is considered one of the finest portraitists of the 20th century. He shot everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Picasso, often homing in on the face in an attempt to reveal the interior life of his subjects. As the curator Magdalen Keaney says, ‘A Penn portrait never feels like it has been taken in a rush. There’s no element of surprise or being caught off guard in his pictures.’

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.

IRVING PENN (1917–2009)

Rock Groups, San Francisco, (Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Grateful Dead), 1967

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Three Poppies, Arab Chief, New York, 1969

IRVING PENN (B. 1917)

Cuzco Children, 1948

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Woman in Moroccan Palace (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), 1951

IRVING PENN (B. 1917)

Black and White Vogue Cover, 1950

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Gingko Leaves , New York, 1990

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Woman in Moroccan Palace (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Marrakech, 1951

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Woman in Moroccan Palace (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Marrakech, 1951

IRVING PENN (B. 1917)

Black and White 'Vogue' Cover, 1950

IRVING PENN (1917–2009)

Woman in Moroccan Palace (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Marrakech, 1951

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Gingko Leaves, New York, 1990

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), 1950

IRVING PENN (b. 1917)

Cuzco Children, 1948

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Cottage Tulip: Sorbet, New York

IRVING PENN (1917–2009)

Poppy: Glowing Embers, New York, 1968

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

2 Guedras, 1972

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Poppy: Glowing Embers , New York, 1968

IRVING PENN (B. 1917)

Black and White Vogue Cover (Jean Patchett), New York, 1950

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Poppy: Glowing Embers, New York, 1968

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Four Guedras (Morocco), 1971

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), 1950

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

The Hand of Miles Davis (New York), July 1, 1986

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

The hand of Miles Davis (B), New York, 1986

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Two Liqueurs, New York, 1951

Irving Penn (1917-2009)

Cigarette No. 37, New York

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), 1950

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

The hand of Miles Davis (C), New York, 1986

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Girl Behind Bottle, 1949

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Mouth, New York, 1986

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Mermaid Dress (Rochas), Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, Paris, 1950

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

The Hand of Miles Davis (C), New York, 1986

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Broken Egg, New York, 1959

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Cuzco Children, 1948

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Mouth (for L'Oreal), New York, 1986

IRVING PENN (B. 1917)

Mouth for L'Oréal, New York, 1986

IRVING PENN (1917–2009)

The Hand of Miles Davis, New York, 1986

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Woman in Moroccan Palace, Marrakech, 1951

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

12 Hands of Miles Davis and His Trumpet, New York, July 1, 1986

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Black and White 'Vogue' Cover, 1950

IRVING PENN (B. 1917)

Black and White Vogue Cover, 1950

IRVING PENN (B. 1917)

Gisele, New York, April 1 1999

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Frozen Foods, New York, 1977

IRVING PENN (b.1917)

Woman with Roses on Her Arm (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn in Lafaurie Dress), Paris, 1950

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Woman with Roses on Her Arm (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), 1950

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Bee on Lips, New York, September 22, 1995

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Poppy, Glowing Embers (New York), 1968

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Mouth (New York), 1986

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Woman with Roses on her arm (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Black and White Vogue Cover (B) (Jean Patchett), New York, 1950

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Playing Card (SM), Neg. XXXVI, 1975