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Irving Penn

by AdminAg

Written by Luca De Nardo

Irving Penn is one of the most iconic photographers that the young history of photography can count. And it is no coincidence that Irving is considered among the greatest masters of glamour, fashion and portrait photography, generating styles and still influencing trends and visions today.

In 1941 in New York he worked at Harper’s Bazaar as an assistant to Alexey Brodovitch, his teacher in his earlier years when he studied drawing, painting, graphics and industrial arts at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art.
After a short time in Mexico, he returned to New York in 1943 and started working at Vogue as an assistant to Alexander Liberman, the new art director at the time, who was intent on modernising the magazine’s images. Liberman saw great potential in him and decided to launch him as a photographer, sending him around the world to take portraits and fashion pictures. The union of the two minds will start a new era in the world of fashion publishing and photography in general. At the same time (and over the following years) Irving pursued an important personal project, photographing nudes in the studio at close range (mainly Body Part Art). The images were considered too provocative for the time and were not shown for decades.

Irving Penn, while experimenting with various shooting and post-production techniques and ranging in all fields (from still life, to portraiture, to advertising) always remained faithful to his unmistakable minimalist style, where shapes, compositional spaces always perfectly balanced, sharp contours, were indistinguishable basic principles of his photography, placing the portrayed subject at the center of the scene.

And it is precisely this technique that Irving will always use, with the skilful help of lighting and focal planes.

He never abandoned experimentation: from stroboscopic lights to produce highly dynamic images (the first studio flashes), the spasmodic search for the perfect lighting scheme, the extensive use of natural light to elaborate post-production processes (platinum and palladium developed prints, layering of development with new films and techniques that, in lengthy post-production work, aimed at obtaining specific tonal ranges) and the perennial search for and use of innovative or obsolete equipment.

As we said, minimalism has always distinguished Irvin’s work, giving us impactful images where the subject explodes within the image and giving us unique and unrepeatable works that have indelibly marked the evolution of modern photography: whether fashion photography, portraits or advertising.
Nothing was ever left to chance.

Irvin Penn is considered a sacred monster of 20th century photography. The author of more than 150 covers for Vogue and a large number of features around the world, his work stands out for its formal purity and ability to synthesise, while leaving a great interpretive and storytelling aspect.

The Black and White Idea

Although there are countless masterpieces by Irving Penn, The Black and White Idea is probably one shot to be considered a milestone in glamour/fashion photography.

The Black and White Idea appeared as the cover in the April 1950 issue of Vogue and the model was Jean Patchett (1926-2002) who, together with Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn and Dovima, was one of the most photographed models of the late 1940s and 1950s.
Jean alone appeared on over 40 covers of magazines such as Vogue, Glamour and Harper’s Bazaare.

“To take the pictures,” says Jean Patchett, “Irvin used to give some hint or an idea that the model had to interpret, even if it was in a studio or on a white backdrop.
‘He gave me stories to act in every film we did. I could be standing in front of a blank piece of paper in a studio and he’d say, OK, now you’re on Fifth Avenue and you can’t get a taxi. Or we’re at the opera and my gentleman friend went to get me an orange soda and he hasn’t come back and I can’t find him and I’m looking everywhere. Mr. Penn told me all these little stories. And it was really fun'(cit. In Vogue) .

In ‘The Black and White Idea’ photo, Patchett wears a silk organza satin-striped dress-cap by Larry Aldrich and looks out from under a round hat by Lilly Daché, with the distinctive mole next to her right eye camouflaged by a sea of bird’s-eye netting. Penn and Patchett have taken some of the most iconic and recognisable fashion photographs of all time together.

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