Irving Penn autoportrait

Identikit | Irving Penn: “The Giant of American Photography” between fashion, portraits and Still Life

Irving Penn is celebrated as one of the greatest photographers in history, referred to as “The Giant of American Photography”.
Born in 1917 in New Jersey, United States, he demonstrated his passion for art in a very young age. In fact, after attending the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, now known as the University of the Arts, Irving dreams of becoming a painter.
After a brief collaboration with the fashion and photography magazine Harper’s Bazaar, he spends a year in Mexico to pursue his dream. The 25-year-old Irving Penn is convinced that he has taken the wrong path and that he would never become a painter. So he decides to return home.


The wedding with Vogue

In 1943 he began to work for Vogue, a marriage that lasted 66 years, which led him to the Olympus of the Masters of Photography.
Irving’s talent with the camera did not go unnoticed by the magazine’s art director, Alexander Liberman, so that he won a cover in the prestigious Vogue in just a few months. The first of over 160 covers by Irving Penn.

Irving Penn’s Vogue covers,

The task of documenting, through photography, the landing of US troops in Italy during the Second World War, leads Irving to Naples. Before returning to New York, he also would join the army in India and in 1948 will carry out some ethnographic services in Peru.

In the early years of his long and bright career, Irving Penn was considered one of the most respected fashion photographers.
However, his artistic repertoire goes far beyond fashion and embraces portraiture, commercial photography and Still Life photography.


The Series of Portraits of celebrities and ordinary people

Irving Penn Salvador Dalì

His black and white shots depicting important celebrities from the world of literature, politics, music, cinema and art, are famous all over the world. Among these we remember Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalì, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, Al Pacino, Robert de Niro and many others.

In front of Irving’s lens, didn’t pose only celebrities.

In the early 1950s he collected in the “Small Trends” series shots taken of workers, waiters, bakers, firefighters, charcoal burners etc., portrayed in working clothes with tools of the trade.

Irving Penn "Small Trades"
Irving Penn “Small Trades”








Irving Penn loves to photograph his subjects with natural light and a gray, neutral background, which isolates and enhances the personality that lies behind the fame of a celebrity or the smile of a humble worker.
For over 50 years, Irving has used an old curtain from a Parisian theater as a backdrop for his portraits. This tent will accompany the photographer on his travels, during which he creates a small traveling photo studio that hosts famous people and ordinary people. Shots from distant corners of the world, from fashion to ethnography, give life to the “Worlds in a Small Room” series.

He literally puts the protagonists of his shots in the corner, inventing an angular photographic set, which will take the name of Penn’s Corner.
In this series of portraits, called “Corner Portraits”, Penn’s photographic lens pushes the photographed subjects to the corner, arousing different reactions in them and inviting them to take innovative poses that do not conform to those of the classic portrait photography known until that time.


Less known are his works on the nude made between 1945 and 1950. Female bodies bent on themselves, with generous shapes, far from the aesthetic canons of fashion and from the models photographed by Penn for Vogue.


Inanimate objects come to life in Irving Penn’s Still Life photography


Irving Penn "New York Still Life"
Irving Penn “New York Still Life”

Irving Penn’s Photography is divided between silver gelatin prints, platinum-palladium prints and color prints.

Some of his shots are presented in the three genres, such as the New York Still Life, which appeared in Vogue magazine. In this image, the disorder of the objects creates a perfect balance of contrasts and harmonic forms.

Although Irving Penn is celebrated and recognized as a giant of fashion and portrait photography, he has made over 100 still life photos in his long career.

His passion and his pictorial training have greatly influenced his approach to the photographic genre of Still Life. In fact, Penn often draws and paints in preparation for his photographic work of still life.

Irving Penn "Flowers" "Sigarettes"
Irving Penn “Flowers” “Sigarettes”



In 2001 Irving Penn published the book “Still Life” which traces over 60 years of career, starting from the first still life photos for Vogue up to some personal works in which the artist gives life to objects of the urban context, such as Flowers and Cigarettes which give name to two series of still life created by Penn.




Like for portrait photography, also for Still Life, Penn adopts a minimalist style, eliminating any irrelevant element in the image. In this way the viewer’s eye will be able to focus exclusively on the protagonist of the shot, placed at the center of the scene, regardless of whether this is a person or a basket of fruit.

“Make things manageable enough to record them, to eliminate anything irrelevant. Because less is more “

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