Irving Penn: a simple but percussive style

Irving Penn is a famous American photographer born in 1917 in New Jersey. He is considered one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. He has a unique style, blending an inspiration inherited from Flemish painters and an unbridled creativity. He is known for his fashion photography, portraits and still life in which one it is possible to perceive its commitment to the art of light.


He started his impregnation in the art world at a very young age, he has learned his design and painting art at the Philadelphia Museum of Industrial Art from which he graduated in 1938. Alongside his studies, he began working with Harper’s Bazaar magazine, illustrating fashion items. In 1940, Irving Penn became art director at Saks Fifth Avenue, the prestigious boutique in Manhattan. He focused design but his camera never leaft his side. After a year working at Saks, he left everything to go paint and take pictures in Mexico City. Upon his return, he was offered a place of art director at Vogue magazine. It was the beginning of a collaboration that lasted until his death in 2009. His first photographic coverage for the magazine dates from 1943.

A simple and effective style
Irving Penn is known for his fashion photography, he works only in studio. He is not interested in photography outside the studio, not even in public places. All his life he remained faithful to studio photography. He will say :

 “In general I find disappointing pictures that represent the people in their natural environment […] so I preferred a more limited task. Focusing only of the person who is away from her everyday life incidents, wearing just her clothes and ornaments, isolated in my studio. It is only from the subject that I can distill the image I want […]. “


People play a major role in his work, for him the model’s personality has an important place in his photography. Even in his fashion photography, the personality of the model is put forward making his fashion images very close portrait. Although best known for his fashion photography work, he also made many portraits and still life work with simple grey or white background, a single source of light, a center subject and a camera on a tripod. Although Vogue is claiming full color series, he managed to keep most of his work in black and white.

Irving Penn said:  “I think the black and white is intrinsically better than the color. I think I have never seen a really beautiful color photography. “

What interests more than anything this photographer is taking a picture of a person who brings a lot of psychology, happiness, pain and emotion. He wants to drop the mask behind which often hide adults.

“This is the main problem of the portrait, to get behind the facade that people want to introduce themselves in. “

He wants his portraits to express the relationship between two individuals, the photographer and the model. More than the portrait of an actor, it’s a human connection that he wants to show in his photo.

And if the ultimate sensitivity was an intimate foray into the model and not its intimacy?