The Irving Penn Foundation
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Mixed-media Paintings & Drawings

As a young man Penn harbored dreams of becoming a painter. He made a series of sketches for paintings, but he found his results to be disappointing and destroyed them. Despite this repudiation, in his work as a photographer, drawing continued to play an important role as he worked out an image and its composition.

After his retrospective exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, Penn returned to painting and drawing as a full-fledged creative endeavor. He even introduced elements from photography and printing to his painting practice, photographing a drawing to print in platinum, which he then used as a matrix for a painting.


Still Life

Underpinning all of Penn's work as a photographer is his special talent in the still life genre, to which he applied his signature resolve to prune away anything that did not contribute to the picture. From his earliest work at Vogue through to his latest series of personal work, this resulted in powerful images that invite contemplation with their acute awareness of objects and their placement.

Penn frequently included elements of memento mori and selected subject matter that could, at first glance, seem unworthy of close examination, which give his images a "bite" that lingers.



Throughout Penn's long career at Vogue, fashion was an essential part of his assignments. In the 1940s, using white paper backdrops and striking compositions to emphasize form, he introduced a concise style to fashion photography that departed from the ornate settings that had defined the genre. In addition to photographs made in the studio from 1950 to 1995, Penn traveled often to Paris to photograph the haute couture collections for the magazine. Until the end of his life, Penn used the same theater curtain found for him in Paris in 1950 as a backdrop to transform a remarkable variety of styles and designs into timeless images. From the start, Penn sought to express the sculptural form of clothing, a theme he explored in a special collaboration with Issey Miyake.



On the weekends and in the evenings in 1949–50, Penn photographed a series of nudes. Drawn to fleshy models whose corpulent undulations he captured in close-up, he printed them using experimental techniques, bleaching and redeveloping the prints until they took on an ethereal quality. With this project, Penn approached photography with principles that ran counter to the glossy sleekness required of magazine pages.

He also photographed nudes at various other points in his career: the San Francisco Dancer's Workshop in 1967, a series of bathing nudes in the late 1970s, and a number of others in the 1990s.



A number of Penn's editorials for Vogue were categorized as "beauty" pictures, conceived to illustrate concepts loosely related to cosmetics evoked in the magazine's pages. They often allowed Penn to employ his sense of wit and concision to create an image that could stand out and "stop traffic."



A major part of Penn's work for Vogue consisted of portraits of celebrities, artists, writers, and other personalities relevant to the reporting valued by the magazine. They constitute a true encyclopedia of twentieth-century cultural history. For his first extensive portrait campaign, he set up unusual environments in the studio for his sitters to insert themselves into and react against: a constricted corner space made of two walls placed at an angle, and a tattered carpet draped over a solid base they could sit on. These point to Penn's interest in disruption, present in his early work for the magazine as he attempted to give his images a grittiness that would animate the page.

This practice allowed Penn to refine his ability to produce the environment without anything more than a backdrop and a stool. Always one to eschew ornate backgrounds that could distract from the subject, in his portraits Penn sought to distill the essence of his subject.  When discussing his portraiture, he framed it as an attempt to find a person at a moment of calm, when they allowed the facade to fall away.


Small Trades

In 1950–51, inspired by old prints of street criers, Penn began a series of photographs depicting representatives of the Small Trades in Paris, London, and New York. The project began in Paris, where he was assisted in the selection of subjects by French Vogue editor Edmonde Charles-Roux and photographer Robert Doisneau. Penn's reflections on the tradespeople:

In general, the Parisians doubted that we were doing exactly what we said we were doing. They felt there was something fishy going on, but they came to the studio more or less as directed— for the fee involved. But the Londoners were quite different from the French. It seemed to them the most logical thing in the world to be recorded in their work clothes. They arrived at the studio, always on time, and presented themselves to the camera with a seriousness and pride that was quite endearing. Of the three, the Americans as a group were the least predictable. In spite of our cautions, a few arrived for their sittings having shed their work clothes, shaved, even wearing dark Sunday suits, sure this was their first step on the way to Hollywood.



One of the major projects of Penn's career, which he pursued intermittently between 1948 and 1971, was a group of photographs made during his travels which he called Worlds in a Small Room. Following an experience in Cuzco working in a daylight studio, Penn sought out other opportunities to improvise or bring a studio with him to make portraits in a neutral environment. These encounters attempted to bridge the gaps of language, culture, and geography, to connect on a human level.



In 1938, Penn bought a Rolleiflex with earnings from drawings published in Harper's Bazaar, using it to record his observations in what he called "camera-notes." These images reveal an interest in vernacular signage and painting that continued to animate Penn during the Second World War, in Europe and India. In addition to photographing "the lulls, the lags, the quiet interims and backwaters of war," he used his camera to collect examples of political graffiti, traces of resistance and occupation.