The 1920s and 1930s saw a close relationship between celebrity portraits and fashion. Modernist photographers including Irving Penn, Man Ray, George Platt Lynes and Edward Steichen, photographed artists, writers, musicians and Hollywood stars including Salvador Dalí, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Jean Cocteau. Featuring in magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar, these portraits were instrumental in shaping the celebrity’s public image. Rather than focusing on the sitter’s occupation and status, the images were innovative in their pose, composition and cropping, as seen with Penn’s corner portraits. Presenting well-known figures in unexpected or even abstract ways created iconic images rather than mere likenesses.
Irving Penn was born June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, N.J. Educated in public schools, he attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Art from 1934 to 1938, where Alexey Brodovitch taught him advertising design. While training for a career as an art director, Penn worked the last two summers for Harper's Bazaar magazine as an office boy and apprentice artist, sketching shoes. At this time he had no thought of becoming a photographer.
His first job on graduating in 1938 was art director of the Junior League magazine, later he worked in the same capacity for Saks Fifth Avenue department store. At the age of 25, he quit his job and used his small savings to go to Mexico, where he painted a full year before he convinced himself he would never be more than a mediocre painter.
Returning to New York, he won an audience with Alexander Liberman, art director of Vogue magazine, who hired Penn as his assistant, specifically to suggest photographic covers for Vogue. The staff photographers didn't think much of his ideas, but Liberman did and asked Penn to take the pictures himself. Using a borrowed camera, and drawing on his art background and experience, Penn arranged a still life consisting of a big brown leather bag, beige scarf and gloves, lemons, oranges, and a huge topaz. It was published as the Vogue cover for the issue of October 1, 1943, and launched Penn on his photographic career.
Penn soon demonstrated his extraordinary capacity for work, versatility, inventiveness, and imagination in a number of fields including editorial illustration, advertising, photojournalism, portraits, still life, travel, and television.
In his earlier work Penn was fond of using a particular device in his portrait work, replacing it with a fresh one from time to time. At one time he placed two backgrounds to form a corner into which his subject was asked to enter. It was, as Penn explains, "a means of closing people in. Some people felt secure in this spot, some felt trapped. Their reaction made them quickly available to the camera." His subjects during this 'corner period' included Noel Coward, the Duchess of Windsor, and Spencer Tracy, most of whom complied readily.
Two series of portraits are especially memorable. One was made during Christmas in Cuzco, Peru, the other in studios in London, Paris, and New York. The first, in 1948 high in the Andes, followed a fashion assignment. With a few days to spend between planes, Penn persuaded the local photographer to rent him his studio. Pushing aside the ancient studio camera and picking up his Rollei, Penn made some 200 portraits in color and in black-and-white, in a studio that had a stone floor, a painted background, a small rug, and an upholstered posing chair similar to a piano stool.
The other series was the famous Small Trades project, a large number of workers posing formally in their work clothes and holding the implements of their trade or occupation. Each was posed against a plain background and lighted from the side, the characteristic lighting that has become identified with most of Penn's portraiture.
In the 1950s, Penn founded his own studio in New York and continued to develop his fashion, commercial and personal work for the rest of his life. Notably series include Flowers - produced over seven years for Vogue's Christmas editions; Dahomey - taken in 1967 when visiting the kingdom for Vogue; Still Life - modernist compositions formed of objects Penn accumulated, and Cigarettes - shot in the early 1970s and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in his first exhibition in 1975.
Penn died in 2009; his work is still widely exhibited around the world, and is held in major collections including the Art Institute of Chicago; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; National Portrait Gallery, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, amongst others. In 2013 The Irving Penn Foundation donated 100 images to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, bringing the number of works in their collection to 161.