“I can get obsessed by anything if I look at it long enough. That’s the curse of being a photographer.” —
There is absolutely no argument or debate that Irving Penn holds the distinction of being one of the great photographers of the last century. He worked for Vogue magazine for six decades with quiet, and unswerving dedication. Irving Penn was an artist who chose film as his canvas and light as his medium. Like his contemporary, Lillian Bassman, he studied with Alexey Brodovich in his Design Laboratory. Brodovitch taught how to use modern art and graphic design by showing magazines and photography to his pupils. Penn, too, became an assistant to Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar.
His early years
Penn traveled to Mexico to paint. He made photographs along the way. His paintings wound up as disappointments that he destroyed before returning to New York. Alexander Liberman, then the new art director at Vogue, hired Penn to as his associate. One of his jobs was to suggest cover concepts for the photographers who worked there. Liberman reviewed the contact sheets from Penn’s travels. He saw talent. His strong suggestions were the beginnings of Penn’s journey as a beyond world class photographer. Penn literally changed modern photography.
In post World War II, Penn was sent on several overseas assignments by Liberman. These trips molded Penn through experience. Penn liked working in studios where he was able to control his creative process. He would take the time to refine his compositions on set. Everything was extraordinarily deliberate. He also worked on personal projects. One body of work was making photographs of what would today be called “plus size” nudes close up in the studio. His goal was to “break through the slickness of the image.” This direction was influenced by the work of artists from the past who made canvases of nudes. The photographs are available for viewing today. When Penn created them, they were considered too provocative for the time.
He went to Paris with an assignment from Vogue of photographing the haute couture collections in a daylight studio using a discarded theatre curtain as a background. It was 1947 when Penn met then worked with Swedish model Lisa Fonssagrives. As Penn put it, “When Lisa came in, I saw her and my heart beat fast and there was never any doubt that this was it.” The couple married in London during September of 1950.
Penn worked on a personal project making photographs of the “small trades” — butchers, workmen, bakers, tradesmen and eccentrics whose trades were slowly disappearing. He made these photographs in New York, London and Paris where the project began. He was helped with choosing the subjects by photographer Robert Doisneau and the editor of French Vogue Edmonde Charles-Roux.
“Worlds in a small room”
This body of work was started in 1948 and ran until 1971. Penn worked in a studio or fashioned one to make portraits in neutral settings. Its purpose was to connect people by spanning barriers of geography, culture and language.
Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty
San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts presents an exhibition of 146 of Irving Penn’s photographs from Sept. 29, 2018, through Feb. 17, 2019. The presentation features work that spans Penn’s 70-year career.
“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”