Fine Art Photography Series
Irving Penn

Biography of American Fashion Photographer.

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One of the top
fashion photographers of the
20th century.

Irving Penn (1917-2009)


Irving Penn's Photography
Other Famous Camera Artists

See also: the History of Photography (c.1800-1900).
See also details of 19th-Century Photographers.

For a brief explanation of technical
and historical terms, please see:
Art Photography Glossary.

Irving Penn's Photography

One of the greatest photographers of the mid-20th century, Irving Penn ranks alongside Cecil Beaton (1904-80), Norman Parkinson (1913-90), Helmut Newton (1920-2004) and Richard Avedon (1923-2004) as an important innovator in the field of fashion photography and portraiture. His camera art was instrumental in shaping post-World War II feminine chic and the glamour photography that promoted it. He was famous for formulating his pictorial ideas without unnecessary flourishes or irritating backgrounds, and for the compelling serenity of his works. He was also the author of a number of remarkable plant studies, still lifes, and a series of extraordinary ethnographical essays. A key contributor to American art, he was unquestionably one of the major camera artists of the 20th century. His career, which included more than 150 covers for Vogue magazine, as well as promotional photo-shoots for a wide variety of commercial clients (De Beers, General Foods, Issey Miyake, Clinique), is summed up in his acclaimed photobook Passage (1991). His photos continue to be exhibited in a number of the best contemporary art galleries in America.

Important Photo: Portrait of Picasso. Photograph by Irving Penn.


1934-1938, studies at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, where he studies drawing, painting, graphic art and various types of design under Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971). While still a student, Penn has several drawings published in Harper's Bazaar. 1938-1940, freelance designer in New York. At the same time preliminary sketches for paintings and first photographs (house facades, shop signs, etc.), suggesting possible influence of the Parisian master Eugene Atget (1857-1927).

1940-1941, with Saks Fifth Avenue, initially as assistant to Brodovitch, then as his successor. Gives up this job. Longish stay in Mexico. Devotes himself intensively there to painting and photography. Returns and (from 1943) works as an assistant to Vogue art director Alexander Liberman (1912-99). At first just design schemes for covers. In the same year produces his own first cover page (October issue 1943). Subsequently produces around 160 covers for the magazine.

1944-1945, serves as a medic and photographer with the American Field Service in Italy and India. After the war works again as a photographer for Conde Nast. Fashion photos and portraits, dance photos (from 1946), editorial still lifes (from 1947). 1951, photographs in France, Spain, and Morocco. In the following year first publicity photos for American and international clients. Hundredth Vogue cover in January 1965. 1967, constructs a travelling studio. Subsequently produces numerous ethnographical essays for Vogue - a major contribution to modern art within the field of photography. Also in 1967, first photo essay on flowers.

Penn was one of the first portrait photographers to use a simple grey or white backdrop. Subjects photographed in this type of austere setting included Marcel Duchamp, Martha Graham, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Georgia O'Keeffe, and W.H.Auden, among others.

1972, still life with cigarette ends (as an exhibition in 1975 in MoMA, New York). 1982 first portraits for the re-launched Vanity Fair. Kulturpreis of the DGPh (Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Photographie: German Photographic Association) (1987).

Penn's still life compositions included meticulous arrangements of items - including food, bones, domestic implements, bottles, metal, urban detritus, and found objects. He also experimented with many different production and processing techniques, including prints made on aluminum sheets coated with a platinum emulsion which endowed the resulting image with a warmth that silver prints lacked.

For a brief discussion of the aesthetics and evolution of camera art, see: Is Photography Art?

Selected Exhibitions

Unless stated all shows are solo events.

1954 Cologne (photokina - 1963)
1961 New York (Museum of Modern Art MoMA - 1975, 84]
1963 Washington, DC (Smithsonian Institution)
1977 New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
1986 Paris (Centre national de la photographie)
1988 New York (Pace-MacGill - 1990, 91, 94, 99, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008)
1998 Hamburg (Deichtorhallen -2006)
2000 Paris (Maison europeenne de la photographie]
2001 Essen (Germany) (Museum Folkwang)
2003 San Francisco (Museum of Modern Art)
2004 Paris (Maison europeenne de la photographie)
2004 Houston (Houston Museum of Fine Arts)
2005 Washington DC (National Gallery of Art)
2007 Berlin (Camera Work)
2009 Los Angeles (J. Paul Getty Museum)
2010 London (National Portrait Gallery)
2012 Malmo (Museum of Modern Art - Moderna Museet)

Note: The Irving Penn Archives are housed in the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago, which also holds a significant collection of his fine art prints.



Profiles of Other Famous Camera Artists

In addition to those photographers mentioned above, here is a short list of the best known camera artists of the 19th/20th century.

19th-Century Photographers (1800-1900).
Edward Steichen (1879-1973) pioneer of Pictorialism in Europe and America.
Edward Weston (1886-1958) Still life photographs
Man Ray (1890-1976) Dada, fashion
Paul Strand (1890-1976) Straight photography
John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld) (1891-1968) Dada photomontages
Walker Evans (1903-75) Documentary pictures
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) Street photography
Robert Capa (1913-54) War photographer
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89) Figurative images and still lifes
Jeff Wall (b.1946) Staged photography
Nan Goldin (b.1953) Postmodernist social photography
Cindy Sherman (b.1954) Surrealistic self-portraits
Andreas Gursky (b.1955) Architecture, landscapes

• For more about fashion photographers, see: Homepage.
• For other lens-based art forms, see: Animation and Video Art.

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