Photography Inspiration: Irving Penn


“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it; it is in one word, effective.” —Irving Penn. Irving Penn is considered one of the most influential and innovative photographers of the 20th century. Mainly known for his fashion photography work for Vogue Magazine, Penn’s advertising work also include Clinique, Saks Fifth Avenue, General Food, and De Beers.  His portraits, still lifes and photographic travel essays continue to be exhibited in museums and educational institutions across the country and around the world and has been the inspiration for students looking for a photography degree all over the world.

Penn was originally a freelance designer and illustrator, having studied drawing, painting and graphics at what is now the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  He began his amateur photography while working as the art director of Saks Fifth Avenue in 1940. Two years later he was offered a position in the Vogue Magazine Art Department.  He scored his first fashion cover photo in 1943 and continued to work for Vogue throughout his career.

reflects Modernist ideals and influence; he paid careful attention to the composition of his photographs.  His still life and portrait subjects are known for their skillful arrangement and detail in line and form.  He was one of the first photographers to use a simple white or grey backdrop and constructed sets or angled backdrops with acute corners; a technique mimicked by other greats such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Marcel Duchamp, and a technique that would be a basis for many photography degree lessons.

Credited with stylizing the feminine chic of post-World War II and glamour photography; Penn also created a series of posed nudes in an exhibition called Earthly Bodies, uplifting the female form in its many shapes and sizes.  Taken in 1950, these photos weren’t shared with a larger audience until the 1980s, when society was more ready to accept such depictions of a woman’s body.

Throughout his life Penn experimented with printing techniques, including platinum and palladium emulsion and processing.  Prints made utilizing the platinum and palladium process give off a warm, supple glow similar in look to a print that has been solarized.  Penn has eleven books featuring his photographic works and has been featured in over 30 exhibitions to date, three of those posthumous. All of Penn’s works have been staples in any photography student’s pursuit of their photography degree.

The beautifully elegant yet surprisingly minimalist works of Irving Penn continue to inspire and engage audiences around the world.  The diversity of his subjects, rich and poor, famous or still life provides an eye into the past while continuing to reflect the world around us.

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