Irving Penn (1917-Present) is a professional photographer considered by many to be one of the greatest people to ever work behind a camera. While his work was primarily commercial – advertising, magazine spreads, etc. – he was one of the great innovators in portraiture and composition. As he said in 1953 when his studio first opened, “Photographing a cake can be art.”
While he is not really known for his photographs of cakes, it is in portraiture that he garnered the most praise. He used specific devices to highlight or provoke his subject into responding. For a period, he would place his subject in an artificial corner, where he could capture their reaction as they found themselves physically and psychologically enclosed. He would use specific props repeatedly if he liked them, as he did during a period of three months where he would place almost all of his subjects on an old rug he had bought at a Third Avenue shop.
Penn was born in 1917 in Plainfield, NJ and later studied advertising design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. He graduated to become art director at Junior League magazine and later at Saks Fifth Avenue. At 25, he quit and took his savings down to Mexico to pursue his dream of becoming a painter. Penn realized he would never be more than mediocre, so he quit painting and went back to New York.
There, he got a job at Vogue as an assistant to Alexander Liberman, specifically to suggest cover photographs. While the staff photographers were chilly to Penn’s ideas, Liberman was not. Liberman allowed Penn to shoot his own cover ideas. He arranged a still life of a brown bag and some fruit and shot it. It became the cover of the October 1, 1943 issue and Penn’s career was launched.
Penn’s photographs have been given major exhibitions in world renown galleries, such as the Metropolitain Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. His influence can still be seen in the commercial and artistic portraiture of today. Penn lives in New York City to this day, often donating some of his prints to museums.