Design Friday. Irving Penn.

I haven’t been doing the “Design Friday” posts on a regular basis for a few months. They became a little to involved and time-consuming from a research standpoint. Obtaining images, and writing the fairly lengthy posts just sucked up to much of my time at night to keep it up. If you read them on a regular basis, I’m sorry that I have slowed down. The good news is, today I want to talk about photographer Irving Penn.

One of the most influential photographers of the second half of the 20th century, Penn has been an inspiration to me in more ways than I can count.

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Irving Penn studied at what is now the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, graduating in 1938. While at the University of the Arts he studied under Alexey Brodovitch with a focus not on photography but painting. After graduation a number of his drawings were published in Harper’s Bazaar, helping to secure a transition to photography as his dominant career path. Penn became known for post World War II feminine chic and glamor photography that had a signature look to it. A look that influenced many of his contemporaries and helped to define a style that is synonymous with the mid-century modern period ranging from the mid 40’s to mid 60’s.

While his prints are always clean and clear, Penn’s subjects varied widely. Many times his photographs were so ahead of their time that they only came to be appreciated as important works in the modernist movement years after their creation. For example, a series of posed nudes whose physical shapes range from thin to plump were shot in 1949-1950, but were not exhibited until 1980. His still life compositions are skillfully arranged assemblages of food or objects; at once spare and highly organized, the objects articulate the abstract interplay of line and volume. His later works are made on aluminum sheets coated with a platinum emulsion rendering the image with a warmth and maturity that un-toned silver prints lacked

Penn is constantly associated with Vogue magazine. His relationship began with the magazine in the early 1940’s. And while it was disrupted by the second world war, Penn returned immediately to Vogue in 1946, where he photographed continually for the magazine, making fashion pictures, still lifes, portraits, and clever, atmospheric confections that touched more or less directly on the world of theater. During 1947, the second year after his return, the essential Penn – what now might be called the historic Penn – emerged. The calm spareness of vision and manner in his pictures became breathtaking. When you see Penn’s photographs against the background of the various trilling, ornamental styles that had seemed to dominate fashion magazines at the time, Penn’s images seemed to represent a new beginning.

It was perhaps Penn’s portraiture and in still life photographs rather than the fashion images that Penn first found full confidence in his own style and eye. Several of his earliest memorable portraits, including George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken and John Marin, were made in 1947, as was his fun and whimsical Still Life with Watermelon, one of his triumphs of color photography. Beginning the next year in 1948 Penn traveled to Europe where made many portraits including many older painters and writers had been largely hidden from American audiences during the war years, as well as  younger artists who were generally known only to specialists. The portraits of artists, especially, were an adventure for the youthful Penn because he personally knew and admired their work. His 1948 photograph Joan Miro and his Daughter Dolores is in part an homage to the painting made ten years earlier by Balthus.

A collection of many of his most important works were acquired jointly by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1990. In 1996 Mr. Penn donated most of his archives and 130 of his prints to the Chicago Art Institute. The Morgan Library & Museum in New York acquired 67 of Mr. Penn’s portraits in 2007 shortly before his death in 2009 and exhibited them in 2008.

The critic Richard Woodward, writing about Penn in 1990, argued that he would be best remembered for the work he did for museum walls. “The steely unity of Irving Penn’s career, the severity and constructed rigor of his work can best be appreciated when he seems to break away from the dictates of fashion for magazines. Only then is it clear how everything he photographs — or, at least, prints — is the product of a remarkably undivided conscience. There are no breaks; only different subjects.”

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