Irving Penn was a well-known fashion photographer, who took an artistic approach. By working in the advertising industry, as well as a painter for almost seventy years, he became one of the most famous photographers. (Gan 2013; Janauskas 2013) Described as a master of his medium, Penn influenced our society to look at photography differently and see it as a tool, that would break the boundaries and proof that it had the ability to be as iconic and sublime as fine art. (Gan 2013)
Figure 1. Radical Beauty Pas Un Autre 2015, Pas Un Autre, Los Angeles, California, viewed 23 August 2015,<http://www.pasunautre.com/editorialmain/2011/06/20/irving-penn-radical-beauty>.
In the summers of 1937 and 1938 Penn worked as an unpaid design assistant for Harper’s Bazaar, which, at the time, was the most provocative fashion magazine. However, it was the Vogue magazine under the director Alexander Liberman that enabled him to be recognized and accepted in the art world. During the beginning of his career with Vogue in 1943, Penn not only photographed some of the most famous models, but also created brilliant still lives of celebrities. (Gan 2013; Grundberg 2009) His photographs have been exhibited by museums and bought by collectors. (Grundberg 2009)
“In advertisements as well as in his independent work, he imbued banal or outre subjects with artistry and sophistication.” (Gan 2013, p.1)
In 1995 Penn donated his archive to the Art Institute of Chicago. The Paper Archive, which was housed in the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, and the Photographic Archive, held by the Department of Photography. These two parts of the Penn-archives can be cross-referenced. The combination of the material not only gave an insight into Penn’s creative process and working method, but also provides records of political and cultural trends during the second half of the 20th century. A perfect example serving this idea is a collection of tear sheets from Vogue. They depict a model wearing white “Marguerite” dresses, whereas Leon Danielian of the Ballet Russe portrays a tempting Mephisto. By looking at the differences between the unused and the published imagery, these tear sheets serve as an example to what extent eroticism was accepted in 1949.
The contact sheets also show, how some of Penn’s ideas carried throughout his career. Another significant fact is the relationship between advertising and still life that is occurring in his images. For example, by comparing his advertisement for Chanel and his 3 Steel Blocks (1980) from his private work, an obvious connection is noticeable. (Janauskas 2013)
Figure 2. 3 Steel Blocks (1980) The Art Institute of Chicago 2015, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, viewed 23 August 2015,<http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/IrvingPennArchives/artwork/144764>.
Figure 3. 3 Chanel Products (1968) The Art Institute of Chicago 2015, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, viewed 23 August 2015,<http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/IrvingPennArchives/artwork/144846>.
Although working in the fashion industry, his photographs seemed to challenge and resist fashion. (Grundberg 2009) Penn was interested in the way people presented themselves, the artificial reality that was created through fashion and presented to the public. (Gan 2013) By including a housefly in a still life of food, or placing insects on his models, Penn’s images criticise fashion’s standards of perfection and question ideals of beauty.
Figure 4. Bee on Lips (1995) Phillips 2015, Phillips, London, United Kingdom, viewed 23 August 2015,<https://www.phillips.com/detail/IRVING-PENN/UK040113/54>.
Described by the critic Richard Woodward in 1990: (Grundberg 2009) “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.” (Grundberg 2009, p.1)
Janauskas, J 2013, The Irving Penn Archives at the Art Institute of Chicago, Overview, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, viewed 23 August 2015,<http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/IrvingPennArchives/overview>.
Grundberg, A 2009, ‘Irving Penn, Fashion Photographer, Is Dead at 92’, The New York Times, 8 October, viewed 23 August 2015,<http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/08/arts/design/08penn.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.
Gan, V 2013, ‘Iconic Photography by the Legendary Irving Penn Comes to the American Art Museum’, Smithsonian, 18 July, viewed 23 August 2015,<http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/iconic-photography-by-the-legendary-irving-penn-comes-to-the-american-art-museum-25926352/?no-ist>.