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Irving Penn

(b. 1917)


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(1917–2009).

Photographer. Known especially for portrait and fashion work, he also addressed other subjects, always with unforced elegance, a flair for abstract design, and technical perfectionism. Although most of his best-known photographs are black-and-white, he also worked effectively in color. Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, he trained as a commercial artist in Philadelphia. While subsequently working in New York, he also continued painting, as he later did from time to time. In 1943 he was hired by Vogue's art director Alexander Liberman as his assistant. Although Penn had taken personal photographs for several years, he became interested in using the medium professionally only after he had joined the magazine. For Vogue, Penn produced ravishing fashion photographs but also took on other diverse projects. For a celebrity portrait series begun in 1948, he positioned his sitters in a tight corner, specially constructed in his studio. This constricted space, limiting his options and the subject's, produced novel interpretations of their personalities. In the same year, while traveling in Peru, Penn for the first time photographed indigenous people against blank backgrounds. In subsequent years, he traveled widely, capturing the faces, body language, and adornment of those whom the modern world had barely touched, as well as tradesmen and other culturally overlooked urban dwellers. By turning ethnography into a fashion shoot, he responded at an early date to postmodern questions about cultural identity, imperialism, and construction of the ideal. In the 1970s Penn extended his quest for order and beauty to highly improbable subjects. A series of found objects from the streets included such detritus as discarded cigarette butts, a mud-crusted glove, and battered paper cups. By presenting these subjects unsentimentally in large, sharply detailed, impeccably crafted platinum prints, Penn gave them the dignity of expensive items. Reiterating the modern notion that aesthetic value is created by the artist, not the subject, Penn demonstrated in this series that he was up to the challenge. Collections of his work include Moments Preserved (1960), Worlds in a Small Room (1974), which presents his studies of international clothing and body adornment, and the career survey Passage: A Work Record (1991). He died at his Manhattan home.

Subjects: Art.


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