Irving Penn, one of the most revered American photographers of the post-war era, whose elegant portraits were equally suited to the pages of Vogue or the walls of the country’s great art galleries, has died. He was 92.
The news was confirmed on Wednesday by Peter MacGill, whose New York gallery exhibited Penn’s starkly-realised photographs of anything from celebrities, fashion models and designer handbags to Amazonian tribes-people and cigarette ends.
“He never stopped working,” MacGill told the Associated Press, recalling how Penn spent more than six decades honing his signature photographic style. “He would go back to similar subjects, and never see them in the same way twice.”
A prolific photographer, who throughout the 1950s and 1960s would fill roughly 300 of Vogue’s pages each year, Penn was fond of dragging his subjects out of their natural milieu to shoot them over several painstaking hours in his Manhattan studio.
His minimalist style would see a typical subject creatively arranged against a minimalist back-drop. Famous subjects included Miles Davis, Pablo Picasso and WH Auden, though he was perhaps most renowned for still life portraits of everyday people.
“Many photographers feel their client is the subject,” he famously told The New York Times in 1991. “My client is a woman in Kansas who reads Vogue. I’m trying to intrigue, stimulate, feed her ... The severe portrait that is not the greatest joy in the world to the subject may be enormously interesting to the reader.”
In keeping with this aim, Penn dragged Hell’s Angels, San Francisco hippies, and everyday working people onto the fashion pages. In several famous series, he photographed indigenous tribes-people in an unfamiliar studio environment.
An important retrospective entitled Small Trades, showing crisp black-and-white portraits of 1950s New York plumbers, policeman and delivery boys, opened to great critical and public acclaim at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles last month.
Penn was also renowned for his still life photography, of a wide range of objects. One of his most controversial shows, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, consisted of close ups of debris – including cigarette butts and food wrappers – collected from the local streets.
Some reviewers thought the exhibition unspeakably pretentious. Others praised him for demonstrating that discarded rubbish could be turned into a beautiful image. “Photographing a cake can be art,” he once famously announced.
Penn’s best-known modern photographs are perhaps cosmetics adverts he shot for Clinique that have been in circulation since 1968. Each image is a balancing act of make-up jars, bottles and bars of soap that seems on the verge of collapse.
The son of a New Jersey watchmaker, he was born in 1917. After initially attempting to become a painter, he began working for Vogue as a photographic assistant responsible for helping design the magazine’s covers, in 1943.
He made a name for himself with elaborate, often outrageous cover designs, but sometimes struggled to find photographers at the title willing to shoot them. As a result, he immediately resolved to become a photographer himself.
Penn’s first Vogue cover was shot in October 1943, and over the next 65 years, he would contribute more than another 150.
Penn is survived by his brother Arthur, a film director behind The Miracle Worker and Bonnie and Clyde, and a son, Tom, born to his wife of 40 years, the late model Lisa Fonssagrives.Reuse content