Irving Penn (1917-2009) is an American photographer who is probably best known for his fashion images, often taken for Vogue magazine together with portraits of the rich and famous of that world. However, he also took the opportunity to photograph other people while travelling. Penn set up a simple outdoor studio, using a grey or whole cloth and only natural light. He then invited people to pose against it, using no props. He describes it as “The [portable tent] studio became for us both a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, since I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives. It was not my home since I had obviously come from elsewhere far away. But in this limbo was in us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often I could tell a moving experience for the subjects themselves.” (McLaughlin, 2013). Initially Penn worked by locating studios and hiring them and asking people to come and have their photos taken. He then moved on to developing his own portable studio which could be set up outside. The images he took have a timeless quality as he used a very simple background cloth. When talking about the series of images taken of the Cusco people, Kozloff describes it as ‘It is as if his subjects had stepped, not onto the stage to which theory were accustomed, but onto one of his imagining, a bare environment intended to set off their picturesque shabbiness to graphic effect’ (Kozloff, 2007). The images are studied, there is no apparent feeling for the individuals involved, just the costumes and masks the people wear. He went on to take other series of images such as those of the people from New Guinea and even groups of Hell’s Angels. His pictures of the celebrities, while more individual, show use of similar techniques of use of a simple backdrop and harsh light and shadow such as that of Woman with a Handkerchief (Jean Patchett) a Vogue cover from 1950. His images of the various native populations have often been described as exploitative as he used them as ‘fashion pictures’ rather than serious studies of the ethnography of the regions. However, he said about them ‘the people I photographed were not primitive. The primitive people are in New York’ (Goldberg, 1991).
Penn was an eclectic photographer. As well as his portrait work, both personal and for fashion magazines, he took pictures of flowers where he said he was ‘drawn to flowers considerably after they’ve passed their point of perfection’ (Smart and Jones, 2019) , cigarette butts and things found underfoot (a series of marks on the pavements). Penn was also famous for his printing, often utilising platinum/palladium techniques to give a soft but intensely detailed finish.
Whatever you think of the ethics of his photography there is no doubt that he produced an astounding and varied body of work. Penn’s vision for his project that is shown in Worlds in a Small Room was ‘These remarkable strangers would come to me and place themselves in front of my camera, and in this clear north sky light I would make records of their physical presence. The pictures would survive us both and at least to that extent something of their already dissolving cultures would be preserved forever.’ (McLaughlin, 2013). This has come to pass and is a remarkable epitaph to a man who worked at his passion almost until he died.
Goldberg, V. (1991). ART; Irving Penn Is Difficult. “Can’t You Tell?” The New York Times. [online] 24 Nov. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/24/arts/art-irving-penn-is-difficult-can-t-you-tell.html [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].
Kozloff, M. (2007). The Theatre of the face : Portrait Photography Since 1900. London: Phaidon.
McLaughlin, T. (2013). Worlds in a Small Room. [online] Image on Paper. Available at: https://imageonpaper.com/2013/07/21/review-worlds-in-a-small-room/ [Accessed 29 Oct. 2019].
Smart, A. and Jones, R. (2019). How Irving Penn ‘changed the way people saw the world.’ [online] Christies.com. Available at: https://www.christies.com/features/Guide-to-Irving-Penn-9751-1.aspx [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].