Know Your Photographer: Irving Penn

Irving Penn was one of American photography’s greatest innovators. In an illustrious career that spanned well over six decades, he forever questioned, constantly experimented and persistently pushed at the boundaries of form, content and technique within the discipline.

He took the work of photographic masters such as Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton and trimmed their opulent excess, creating clean, sophisticated imagery that transcended the pages of glossy magazines and found its way into art galleries and museums.

His dedication to the medium left him practically peerless, and his work not only helped to redefine fashion photography, but also the role of the photographer in modern society. For this installment of Know Your Photographers, we explore the makings of a modern icon.

Master of the Dark Room

Confidence is the word that springs to mind when leafing through the back catalogue of American photographer Irving Penn. His powerful images bear all the hallmarks of a man with a keen handle on both the technical and artistic side of his craft. As such, it is no surprise that he is widely regarded as one of the finest photographers of his day.

Born in New Jersey in 1917, Penn was best known for his elegant fashion photography and intimate portraits of the rich and famous. But it was his long hours of experimentation in the darkroom that singled him out from his contemporaries. Entire shoots were planned with specific darkroom techniques in mind, and Penn would create elaborate set ups in order to repeatedly test his new ideas.

This relentless pursuit of both innovation and perfection can be seen in a technique he developed that played cleverly with bleach and light. Under very long exposure and close to total darkness, he would take pictures of a model’s naked body. The resulting negatives would be almost completely black, the subject shrouded in shadow.

Then, in the darkroom, he would use bleach in the developer to corrode the lighter regions, such as the skin, in order to reveal them from the fully underexposed areas. The result was extraordinary, with the flesh of his models having an almost translucent quality. Their skin began to resemble statues cut from fine marble: smooth with an almost luminous, other-worldly patina.

Penn was also a great lover of platinum printing, an expensive and difficult technique that took him several years to perfect. Although invented in the 19th century, it is Penn who is credited with reviving the process and introducing it to modern audiences. He loved the rich tonality and deep contrasts that it produced, but he also relished the challenge of trying to refine it, sometimes spending upwards of 50 hours on a single image.

What made the process so problematic was the huge amount of variables involved, and Penn’s handwritten notes from the time show how articulate and intuitive he was when it came to problem solving. Many obstacles stood in the way, each overcome by tedious trial and error. The graining and specific PH levels of certain paper types were noted and compared, varying concentrations of the coating solution were examined and the camera that produced large enough negatives was acquired. All options were considered, explored, tested and, finally, perfected.

After countless failures, he finally achieved the results he was after and immediately put his new found skills to use by creating images of scavenged cigarette butts. This approach – of elevating cheap subject matter to new artistic heights through expensive printing methods – was at complete odds to his commercial magazine work. At Vogue, his subjects were glamorous women in luxurious clothing, and his images were easily reproduced using cheap mass printing techniques. Penn derived a kind of perverse pleasure from this role reversal, enjoying the extreme contrast between process and subject that platinum printing brought about.

An Analytical Mind

The darkroom stories tell much of the mind of Penn and his uniquely practical way of looking at the world. However, as a young man, he found the new profession of graphic design far more alluring than photography.

He, along with his contemporary Richard Avedon, attended the New School for Social Research in New York City where he studied under legendary Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch. Here Penn learnt a wide range of skills as the varied lessons focused on topics such as photography, magazine design and modern European art movements such as Bauhaus, constructivism and surrealism.

After graduating, he interned for a summer under Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar and later worked for a year as the art director of Saks Fifth Avenue department store. In 1941, he decided to take some time out and visit Mexico with the vague notion of becoming a painter. Instead he was transfixed by his Rolleiflex camera and began shooting the people he met on his travels in a reportage style reminiscent of American photographer Paul Strand.

Experimenting with composition, lighting and intonation, this formative period showcased the embryonic beginnings of his later photographic style.

On his return to New York, he was immediately hired by Vogue art director Alexander Liberman who soon gave him the opportunity to shoot his first Vogue cover. The resulting image from October 1943, shot when Penn was only 26, depicted a rather sombre still life of gloves and jewelry in earthy hues. But subsequent work showed how intent he was to pursue the ideologies of European modernism.

During this period, Penn was the master of subtle innovation. He rebelled against the Steichen-esque principles of dramatic lighting and elaborate sets that had dictated the aesthetic of fashion photography for much of the past 30 years. He began to develop a reductionist style that stripped away excess, allowing the viewer to focus solely on the subject without distraction.

He was one of the first photographers to shoot using a plain background with the express intention of allowing emotion and composition to shine through unhindered.

The Starkness of It All

As Penn’s reputation grew, he soon became revered as one of the most celebrated portrait photographers of his time. As well as capturing politicians, musicians and movie stars, he also practiced a more ethnographic approach, photographing people from all walks of life, both home and abroad. He travelled extensively throughout his career and would often suggest exotic shooting locations to his editors at Vogue just so he could shoot the locals in their traditional dress in his down time.

Despite being known for the sparseness of his imagery, Penn was a great lover of subtle props in his portraiture work. He would form corners in his studio using two lengths of plasterboard, or create seats from canvas draped over wooden pallets. His subjects would then interact with these seemingly inane objects, and in doing so, subconsciously reveal an aspect of their personality.

A particularly intimate portrait of Truman Capote, dressed in an oversized trench coat, shows him kneeling awkwardly on a chair with a menacing expression on his face. Conversely, Salvador Dali’s wild eyes stare confidently back, his pose affirming his extroverted character.

But Penn was always searching for something new. He avidly pursued still life shots of decomposing flowers, animal bones and discarded rubbish, keen to discover beauty not only in the ordinary, but also the disposed. His assistant, with whom he tasked the sourcing of new subject matter, was told by Penn to “stop bringing me things that are beautiful – I want things I can make beautiful.”

Much of the imagery in this period found its way into his many books and gallery shows, showing a man confident working in both the commercial world of Vogue as well as the lofty cerebralism of fine art. For Penn there was no divide. Techniques and motifs crossed between the two arenas without impediment and he was hugely successful in both fields.

This methodology helped inspire a whole raft of young photographers to break free from commercial restraints and to fully experiment with photography as an artistic medium.

Regarding the Work of Issey Miyake

Ever the contemporary, Penn’s skills as a conceptual photographer were tested to the full in 1983 when he was asked by Japanese designer Issey Miyake to shoot his latest collection. Miyake, whose avant-garde clothes were considered by many to resemble high art, was also a true pioneer, creating techniques and developing materials that pushed at the limits of fashion design.

The relationship the two men forged lasted many years and, through subsequent shoots, Penn’s persistent focus on reductionism was the perfect foil to Miyake’s billowing fits and asymmetric detailing. Through Penn’s lens, birds of paradise, geometric robots and samurai warriors emerged from Miyake’s creations, allowing a fresh perspective on one of fashion’s most radical designers.

The relationship was a true meeting of minds and Miyake was particularly enamored with Penn’s work, later saying: “I was looking for one person who could look at my clothing, hear my voice and answer me back through his own creation. Through his eyes, Penn-san reinterprets the clothes, gives them new breath, and presents them to me from a new vantage point. Penn-san shows me what I do.”

Bridging the Gap

Irving Penn bridged the gap between fashion photography’s classic Steichen era and the modern frontier. He mastered both the studio and the darkroom, and it was his technical skills in these areas that cement him as one of the finest photographers in American history.

But what made Penn such an iconoclast was his constant strive for innovation. Even at the age of 85, he created one of the most provocative and technically challenging pieces of his career, Head in Ice. For a rather banal article in Vogue on the damage cold water can do to your face, he took a mannequins decapitated head, froze it in ice and attacked the resulting block with an ice pick.

The subsequent photograph succinctly encapsulates Penn’s approach to his craft. It shows a man pushing boundaries, developing concepts and using his highly intelligent mind to draw his ideas from imagination into reality.

Few other photographers have the ability to do this, yet he did it with an unwavering relentlessness for almost seventy years. Sadly, Irving Penn died at his home in Manhattan on October 7th 2009, aged 92.