April 21, 2009
Irving Penn, Mrs. Armory Carhart, New York, 1947
Irving Penn began his photographic career in 1943 as an assistant for the art director of Vogue and shot his first cover for the magazine that same year. His work is characterized by simplicity, careful composition and the impeccable arrangement of his subjects in the photograph. In Irving Penn, John Szarkowski writes “Penn has never changed his first idea of portraiture; he has merely simplified what at first seemed almost irreducibly simple.” Penn was one of the first photographers to set his subjects against a plain white or grey background. According to Szarkowski, Penn claimed “the simplicity of his approach to fashion was inspired by ignorance. He did not know which sideboard or candelabra or period wallpaper to use with which dress, and therefore discovered by necessity the beauties of the seamless-paper background.” In addition to using basic backdrops, Penn also constructed upright backdrops that formed a severe angle in which the subject of his photograph would be placed. By wedging his subjects in such tight and unconventional spaces Penn increases the photograph’ sense of drama and draws extra focus to the subject and their expression.
Irving Penn, Truman Capote, New York, 1948
Irving Penn’s portrait of Truman Capote, composed in New York in 1948, perfectly illustrates Penn’s signature use of space and simplicity. Capote appears shoved in a corner without enough room to properly sit on the chair provided for him. Penn’s positioning of Capote invokes two images of the writer; a frightened boy dressed up in his father’s too-large overcoat, or an introverted patient of an insane asylum. Penn allows the viewer to see the truth that lies in either of these perspectives. Additionally, the lines sealing the backdrop to the floor move at converging diagonal lines towards Capote’s face. Penn increases the focus on Capote and his quizzical expression through the use of line, background and limited visual distractions.
Irving Penn, Girl Drinking (Mary Jane Russell), New York, 1949
Irving Penn, Tambul Warrior, New Guinea, 1970
Penn’s artistic taste varies from the haute couture of Vogue to the cultural tastes of indigenous tribes; however, his fascination with dress and style remain consistent despite his choice of subject. For instance Szarkowski writes in regards to Penn’s photographs of native New Guineans that “Penn shows us nothing of the circumstances of the New Guinea tribesman, and nothing of their world beyond their sense of style.” Though the subjects of his photos change from models and celebrities to village elders and hippies, Penn remains consistent with his use of simple backdrops and natural light. This consistency grants his more cultural subjects the same air of importance and celebrity as his high fashion models.
Irving Penn, Three Village Elders, Khenifra, Morocco, 1971
Penn’s cultural photographs, like his fashion work, emphasize not only the model’s clothes, but the person beneath the clothing. His photograph of Three Village Elders shot in Khenifra, Morocco in 1971 demonstrates this idea. Despite the similarity in wardrobe, Penn uses careful positioning to differentiate each subject from his neighbor and to exhibit each subject’s personality. Irving Penn is one of the most influential photographers of our time, not only in fashion, but in the world of art. His work is defined by simplicity and the use of plain, yet harshly angled backdrops. Penn captures the essence of his models in each photograph and as a result, his work remains a standard of excellence.