Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Irving Penn 1917 - 2009

From 1940 to 1941, Irving Penn worked for the art and advertising director of Saks Fifth Avenue, and the following year he spent in Mexico painting, a medium he subsequently abandoned. Returning to New York, Penn was hired by Vogue magazine, first to create ideas for cover illustrations, then to photograph covers as well as editorial illustrations for the interior of the magazine. Working closely with Alexander Liberman, Penn developed a highly stylized, graphically compelling form of fashion photography which did much to define post-war notions of feminine chic and glamour. In his fashion and portrait photography.

Eschewing any notions of naturalism, spontaneity, or chance, Penn has always favored the rigidly controlled, formal conditions of the studio. Thus, even when photographing North African nomads, New Guinea tribesman, Peruvian Indians, or Hell’s Angels, Penn contrived portable studios that permitted much the same degree of elegant and structured lighting and composition that he used to photograph fashion models and socialites.

In addition to his fashion and commercial work, Penn has produced a body of art photography. Using platinum and other precious metal processes, Penn has photographed urban detritus (cigarette butts, crumpled wrappers, etc.), the torsos of plump artists’ models, and most recently, still lifes of skulls, bones, and construction materials. While the subject matter represents the antithesis of his fashion and commercial work, as does the use of artisanal printing processes produced in numbered editions, both bodies of work reveal the same preoccupation: balance of form and carefully calibrated composition, with nuances of light and tone, presenting a subject that is emotionally neutral or kept always at emotional and psychological arm’s length.

Still it was Penn's fashion photography for Vogue magazine. He was among the first photographers to pose subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop and used this simplicity more effectively than other photographers. Expanding his austere studio surroundings, Penn constructed a set of upright angled backdrops, to form a stark, acute corner. Posing his subjects within this tight, unorthodox space, Penn brought an unprecedented sense of drama to his portraits, driving the viewer’s focus onto the person and their expression. In many photos, the subjects appeared wedged into the corner. Subjects photographed with this technique included Martha Graham,Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, W. H. Auden, Igor Stravinsky and Marlene Dietrich.

Irving Penn died aged 92 on 7th October 2009, at his home in Manhattan.

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