Elegance, Minimalism & Precision
Images by Irving Penn
Penn’s celebrity portrait and fashion photographs, shot almost exclusively for Vogue, established a classic style which is still emulated by photographers today, and perhaps always will be. They all give singular importance to the subject—the clothes, the model—and project spare elegance, even during the most whimsical eras of 1960s fashion.
Penn was a true artist in that he saw beauty in unusual subjects and was able to translate it into his photographs by acutely highlighting textures and contrasts while maintaining a simplicity of composition. When he turned his focus onto the tribal people of places like New Guinea and Morocco in the 1970s, he posed his subjects with the same tender confidence as with their more contemporary counterparts. The results are strikingly intimate, and would be at home on the pages of National Geographic or in Vogue, where they were published annually.
As his career progressed, his work deviated further from the world of glamour and into high art. He experimented with shooting meticulous, skillfully arranged assortments of things like bones, skulls, cigarette butts and food. In 1949 and 1950 he produced a series of confrontational nude torsos, which he bleached to wash out the flesh tones and give a stark but overtly sexual appearance to the images. These photos were not shown until 1980.
Penn was a masterful technician in the darkroom. Wanting a more permanent print than what the current silver printing method could offer, in the 1960s he taught himself the more time consuming platinum printing method—which involved hand coating sheets of drawing paper with exotic chemicals—and he singlehandedly re-popularized the process, which had been abandoned since the turn of the century. This process produced richer, velvety tones, and he spent the next thirty years painstakingly reprinting most of his older images using this method. He was also a perfectionist in the studio; once assigned to photograph glasses falling from a tray, he insisted upon using Baccarat crystal to maintain the integrity of the shoot. Dozens of the glasses were broken before he was satisfied.
Penn’s photographic legacy combines elegance, minimalism and precision, and an enduring commitment to a style that never wavered in an ever evolving field. His iconic images of celebrity and fashion are a priceless contribution to the archive of his era.