Irving Penn: Photographer whose classical simplicity transformed the pages of 'Vogue' magazine

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The Independent Online

A great portraitist – they are very few – is a sort of sorcerer who seems beyond resemblance." This tribute to "Penn", by which single name he was always known, came from Maurice Goudeket, husband of the legendary writer Colette. On her 80th birthday, he records, "several famous photographers came to the apartment. For a long time now Colette had hardly moved from her bed, so the portraits seldom differed. But an American came, named Penn, and took a stupefying photograph. It discloses all that Colette wished to conceal... Who are the devils favourable to photographers, and what prescience guided Penn?"

The devils – or angels – who guided Penn throughout his photographic life were two, simplicity and persistence. Alone among the truly great photographers, he made his name in the improbable field of fashion, working almost entirely for a single magazine, Vogue. Fashion photography before his time was dependent on elaborate and bizarre settings, extravagant poses, lavish decoration. In Penn's fashion photographs, as in his portraits, there are no settings. Only a model and a dress.

Knowing precisely what he wanted, Penn would make the model repeat the same movement or gesture for half the morning. Only when she was too tired to pose consciously would he start taking pictures seriously. Finally, poring over perhaps 200 contacts, he would select the one where the thrust of a shoulder or the swing of a skirt gave the "severe, almost clinical" effect he had visualised from the start.

When Penn went to Paris in 1950 to cover the collections, he transformed the prevailing ideal of fashion photography from the theatrical to the classically simple. In his portraits he employed the same methods to produce deceptively simple but powerful results. "I am going to find what is permanent in this face. Truth comes with fatigue. He displays himself just as he is, just as he did not want to look."

Those famous faces disclosing more than they intend include André Derain, Jean Cocteau, Jacob Epstein, John Osborne, Tom Wolfe, W.H. Auden, Spencer Tracy, Joe Louis, the Duchess of Windsor and Truman Capote (photographed several times over 30 years). Only the master-illusionist Picasso retains his mask and discloses nothing.

Irving Penn was born in 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey, the elder brother by five years of the film director Arthur Penn, who would become best known for his 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. On leaving school, Irving studied art at a Philadelphia college, and during the summers of 1937-38 worked for nothing at Harper's Bazaar under its renowned art director, the Russian emigré Alexey Brodovich.

In 1940 Penn joined Brodovich, now busy redesigning the advertising for the famous store Saks Fifth Avenue, as his assistant. When Brodovich moved on after a year, Penn took over, but soon quit to spend a year in Mexico painting, before he decided that his talent was no more than mediocre.

On returning to New York Penn was hired by another Russian exile, Alexander Liberman, Vogue's Art Director, as his assistant. Liberman was to prove his great patron, but the association suffered a break in 1944 when Penn joined the volunteer American Field Service as ambulance driver and photographer in Italy and India.

Back again with Vogue his career took off, and by 1947 Penn had emerged as a master photographer in his own right. Unlike most photographers, he did not differentiate between work done as "art", as journalism or for advertising, bringing the same planning and intensity of concentration to photographing Jell-O Pudding as he applied to a Vogue cover.

The astonishing colour techniques he developed in the 1950s, achieving pointilliste effects reminiscent of Seurat, or the dappled sunshine of a Manet riverscape, were used to sell diamonds, cosmetics or drinks. "Photographing a cake can be art," he said when he opened his studio in 1953.

Later, as haute couture declined, Penn made visits to Peru, West Africa, New Guinea and elsewhere, taking a portable studio with him and using the same direct portraiture technique. Deprived of their natural settings, however, the carefully-posed figures often convey little to the viewer. So too with his pictures of cigarettes and street trash, and his series of "Still Life" sculptural impressions: the result seldom seems equal to the effort and thought employed.

Penn produced one magnificent book of his photographs, Moments Preserved (1960), which greatly enhanced his reputation. In 1984 an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York attracted international attention, and the accompanying volume Irving Penn by the Museum's Director, John Szarkowski, formed a splendid record of a life's achievement.

Penn's work had continued to be shown extensively in recent years. In 2002, 53 of his photographs appeared in a solo exhibition, "Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949–50", at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The museum's photographic curator, Maria Morris Hambourg, commented when the show opened: "The 1949–50 series of nudes is Penn's most deeply personal but least known work. He organised the studio sessions on weekends and holidays, when he had time to indulge his imagination and freely follow the train of his attention. The organic way the photographs emerged, each one evolving from the last and then merging into the next, registering the subtle movement from one position to another, makes them fresh, and although the nudes lack limbs and heads, they seem whole, like fragmented antique torsos resplendent in the light."

There was another major show in 2005, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, "Irving Penn: Platinum Prints", while last year 67 of his portraits were shown at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York in an exhibition entitled "Close Encounters". And last month, a show entitled "Penn: The Small Trades" opened at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles, featuring portraits of tradespeople, a series Penn began in the 1950s.

"I myself have always stood in the awe of the camera" he once said. "I recognise it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel".

Penn married Lisa Fonssagrives, the beautiful Swedish model who had posed for many of his pictures. She already had a daughter and they one son. Fonssagrives died in 1992 at the age of 80.

Tom Hopkinson

Tom Hopkinson, the former editor of 'Picture Post', died in 1990. This obituary has been updated

Irving Penn, photographer: born Plainfield, New Jersey 16 June 1917; married 1950 Lisa Fonssagrives (died 1992; one son, and one stepdaughter); died New York City 7 October 2009.