Irving Penn's death at the age of 92 is a huge loss to the world of photography. In a career lasting more than 60 years, he created an extensive and influential body of work within the fields of fashion, still life and portraiture. From the very first image he made for his life-long friend Alexander Liberman, director of Vogue, in 1943, through to the startlingly fresh images he was making for that magazine up until recently, Penn established a distinctive visual signature and style. It is this unique approach and the stunning end imagery that has always excited me, be it on the printed page or in the gallery environment.
One only needs think of his radical early fashion images of Lisa Fonssagrives, who later became his wife, to be reminded of the manner in which he effortlessly combined a formal rigour with a graphic sensibility to create a fashion image which remains truly iconic and transcends time.
The image Mermaid Dress, Rochas which depicts Fonssagrives, was included in The Photographers' Gallery 2008 exhibition, Fashion in the Mirror. Despite being the oldest work in an exhibition of 20 of the most groundbreaking and seminal fashion image-makers including Helmut Newton, Mario Testino and Nick Knight, it remains utterly relevant and fresh.
Penn managed to advance the genre of portraiture to new heights. In photographing so many prominent cultural figures of the 20th century – from Duchamp to Francis Bacon, Colette to Cocteau – he came rightly to be regarded as an equal amongst them.
Although he often said that he regarded the portraitist as "servant to the sitter" and that his role as photographer was to "nurture self-revelation", Penn clearly understood that the secret to an arresting and true portrait was the result of collaboration. His studio sessions were legendary in that they were long and hard – often he subjugated his subjects to such interrogation that they finally let down their "mask" out of sheer fatigue.
The natural heir of Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton, both early 20th-century masters of the fashion and portrait genres, Penn dispensed with their often highly staged artifice, ridding his portraits of any reliance on props, to focus on the essentials at hand. His more minimal approach to portraiture favoured attitude, countenance and gaze in place of flamboyance. But this approach was always tinged with baroque contrivance – whether he was photographing New Guinea tribesmen, cigarette butts or creating a fashion image, he always managed to animate the image with the most unexpected and dramatic contrasts of light and shade, metaphorically as well as literally.
Without Penn's early affiliation to Vogue and his close friendship with its key art directors and editors over half a century, he would not have gained access to the early luminaries he photographed. It is difficult to underestimate the importance of magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar in nurturing the talents of photographers such as Penn in the early part of the last century. Long before they began to successfully sell their work in commercial galleries or have their works shown in public museums, magazines provided the main outlet for their creativity. What becomes clear though viewing a Penn "in the flesh" and on the gallery wall, was the fact that he was also a consummate technician who excelled in pushing the technical boundaries of the medium by experimenting with a wide range of techniques – most characteristically his beloved platinum prints. This experimentation and fearlessness with photography as he invites us to consider the process as much as the end result is something I admire greatly.
Much has been made of his contemporary and rival, Richard Avedon, who worked for Vogue and other similar clients as Penn, during the same period.
Critics have likened their relationship not only to that of Picasso and Braque at the beginning of the 20th century, climbing on each others' shoulders to reach the climax of Cubism, but to the 19th-century painters Delacroix and Ingres. Avedon was the more romantic Delacroix and Penn the cool, ethereal Ingres.
One sees this ethereality in many of his most famous fashion images which possess that cool, glacial, detached but erotically charged atmosphere which is perhaps the hallmark of a great Penn fashion or portrait image.
Brett Rogers is director of The Photographers' Gallery, LondonReuse content