12th May 2017

Irving Penn, Clarity of Purpose

The most comprehensive retrospective of a giant of 20th-century culture offers a true glimpse of the breadth and scope of Irving Penn's vision, commitment and unique talent.

Irving Penn’s position as among the most esteemed and influential photographers of the 20th century is assured. A simpler statement of truth you’re unlikely to read again today or any other. From still life compositions engineered with the precision of a sculptor to the paired down simple elegance of his fashion portraiture, Penn’s influence proved immediate and, despite the ebb and flow of trends, remained indelible to the end of his life.

In this the centenary year of his birth, eight years after his death at the age of 92, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently showcasing the most comprehensive retrospective of his work to date in the exhibition “Irving Penn: Centennial,” with an accompanying book of the same name.

Born in New Jersey to a Russian Jewish family in June 1917, Penn studied drawing, painting, graphics, and industrial arts at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art under designer Alexey Brodovitch, who most famously spent two decades as Harper’s Bazaar’s art director, shaping the magazine into the pre-eminent fashion magazine of its day. He then spent two years working as a freelance designer before moving to Mexico for a year with hopes of pursuing a career as an artist. While there, he realised an adeptness for photography, capturing pictures of the people and streets he encountered as well as surreal still lifes – elements of interest that would remain consistent in his work right to the very end.

Single Oriental Poppy, New York, 1968. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © The Irving Penn Foundation.

When he joined Vogue in June 1943, as assistant to the magazine’s new art director Alexander Liberman, he had no intention of pursuing a career in fashion photography. Liberman was determined to modernise its imagery and saw in Penn’s work a great “clarity of purpose” and “freedom of decision”, commissioning him to capture still lifes for the magazine, before branching out into stories on the latest couture designs. His first fashion photographs featured in the August 1944 issue. 

It is this six-decade relationship with Vogue that remains Penn’s most lasting legacy. He was first and foremost a fashion photographer. His early photographs of couture are masterpieces that established a new standard for photographic renderings of style in the middle of the last century, and he continued to record the cycles of fashions year after year in exquisite images characterised by striking shapes and formal brilliance.

Naomi Sims in Scarf, New York, ca. 1969. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © The Irving Penn Foundation.

“I can get obsessed by anything if I look at it ling enough. That’s the curse of being photographer.”


Two Miyake Warriors, New York, 1998. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © The Irving Penn Foundation

For many years, Penn also faced the advertising world. “Photography disturbs me when it is used as propaganda, however benign,” he once said. “I am especially sensitive to this because it is an area of personal struggle in my work. Since I have been a commercial photographer almost all of my professional life I have come now to yearn for a personal photography that does not try to manipulate anyone.” He continued to produce advertisements until 1970, when he narrowed his focus to prioritise his passion for fashion and cosmetics photography.

His rigorous modern compositions, minimal backgrounds, and diffused lighting were innovative and immensely influential. Yet Penn’s photographs of fashion are merely the most salient of his specialities. He was a peerless portraitist, whose perceptions extended beyond the human face and figure to take in more complete codes of demeanour, adornment, and artefact. He was also blessed with an acute graphic intelligence and a sculptor’s sensitivity to volumes in light, talents that served his superb nude studies and life-long explorations of still life.

Girl Drinking (Mary Jane Russell), New York, 1949. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © Condé Nast.

“What I really try to do is photography people at rest, in a state of serenity.”


Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © Condé Nast.

These subjects chart the artist’s path through the demands of the cultural journal, the changes in fashion itself and in editorial approach, the fortunes of the picture press in the age of television, the requirements of an artistic inner voice in a commercial world, the moral condition of the American conscience during the Vietnam War era, the growth of photography as a fine art in the 1970s and 1980s, and personal intimations of mortality. All these strands of meaning are embedded in the images—a web of deep and complex ideas belied by the seeming forthrightness of what is represented.

Irving Penn: Centennial is showing now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until July 30th. 

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