Irving Penn – fashion photographer

This week, in Photography 2, we are required to learn about a famous photographer. I chose Irving Penn (1917-2009), one of the world’s best fashion photographers. The image below is of Lisa Fonssagrives, a  super model of her day. Born in Sweden and trained as a dancer, she had a real understanding of how to pose to show off her costumes and form. Penn liked taking her picture so much he married her, in London, in 1950.

It’s an interesting picture. Penn pioneered taking pictures of models where the main thing was the garment, not the background or props, as was the norm at the time. By showing the backdrop he is also taking away the artifice and giving us a little jolt. The model is not going out to a dance, she is standing on mottled paper, in a studio in Paris, barely lit (if at all) with flash or lights. “We don’t call them shoots here,” Penn told journalist Jay Fielden in 2009. “We don’t shoot people. It’s really a love affair.”

Lisa Fonssagrives in Rochas mermaid dress
Lisa Fonssagrives in Rocha’s mermaid dress, 1950, Metropolitan Museum, NY, Conde Nast

I chose to research Irving Penn, known most famously, as the supplier of covers for Vogue. He did 165 covers, more than any other photographer, over 66 years! An incredible achievement. 

Irving Penn Vogue
Vogue cover by Irving Penn

He took pictures of models, fashion, flowers, famous people’s portraits, studies of working men, shots of Mexicans, travel photographs, advertisements (Clinique and Issey Miayke); and he was also an artist and painter.

Have a look at his portraits. He apparently spent several hours with each person, until they stopped posing and became themselves again.

“Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe” (1975).

For my project I decided to focus on his still life – an area that I struggled with when I took pictures for my own book. He said that “photographing a cake can be art”. He produced a book of his still life photographs but it is rather expensive. Instead I created a Pinterest page. Many of his images are funny – they make you think. The glorious photographs of food – abundance stacked on a table, or the ingredients of a dish such as mozzarella and tomato salad, or salad dressing – recall 17th century art. By taking the components of traditional still life paintings – such as skulls, fish, jugs and bountiful fare – he also subverts them and makes us do a double take. As he says:

“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 one word, effective”.

He turns cigarette butts into art so that we notice their frail paper wrappings, their subtle brands, the impact of lipstick and spittle, the grinding down of the burnt tobacco – we look in a new way at something that was previously categorised as rubbish. His photograph Aphrodisiacs features an oyster (naturally rich in Zinc), an erectile dysfunction drug capsule, a Spanish fly and of course money. It’s funny, tells a story and is of course perfectly composed and shot.

Irving Penn Aphrodisiacs

As an artist he also had a great interest in print making, investigating 19th century methods to provide greater control and using platinum and palladium metals rather than the cheaper silver as a key ingredient to get the most luminescent images. He spent hours creating hand-sensitised artist’s paper (stuck to aluminium sheets so it could withstand several coats and prints), and in the dark room perfecting his technique rather than seeking the limelight himself.

He preferred to take photographs in the studio where we could control the environment, and reduce the background noise. His composition, somewhat novel at the time, focused in on the object, stripped of its context. When working on the couture collections for Vogue, he used a daylight studio with an old theatre curtain as a backdrop.  On his many trips abroad for Vogue he focused on making portraits of the people he encountered in natural light. He would use contained spaces like garages or barns to create a makeshift studio, a neutral space, so that the subject would come to the fore. This is how he worked to overcome the cultural barriers between – for example Mexican farm workers or Japanese Samurai.

1948, Mexico, The Irving Penn Foundation

Penn died in New York, in 2009, at the age of 92. In his later years he tidied up his collection, saving the very best prints which he made into books. He also set up The Irving Penn Foundation to preserve the photographs and his legacy.

Next week I will show you the still life photographs that I submitted for my homework.

5 Responses

  1. Carol S

    Last year there was a wonderful exhibit of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It has 3 sections, Fashion, local people in Morocco and Mexico and my favorite, series of trade people with the tools of their trades.

    • fabrickated

      Thanks Carol for this information. I was able to see something of the exhibition on-line, but it would have been wonderful to see it in person. The “small trades” photographs are wonderful, aren’t they, both in themselves and as part of the historical record as many of these businesses are lost.

  2. mrsmole

    Seeing black and white photos is so intriguing and it make you delve deeper into the photo when color is not controlling everything and directing our gaze.Thank you for introducing Irving Penn to us!

  3. Vancouver Barbara

    He was brilliant. I remember the palladium and platinum cigarette butt photographs, the metallic surface raising the mundane to a new level. Didn’t he also do tulip portraits every Christmas or New Year. I think Harper’s Bazaar ran that series for a few years. He was such an elegant man himself married to an exquisite woman. I really look forward to seeing your inspiration, your homework.

  4. Blanca

    What a genius he was. His pictures stay in our memory and he elevated fashion photo’s to art exhibits. Can’t wait to see your still life’s.

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