Unquestionably, Irving Penn (1917-2009) was one of the most prolific, respected, and influential photographers of the 20th century. Over the course of a nearly seventy-year career, Penn pioneered new styles in fashion, advertising, and editorial photography, all with his elegant aesthetic simplicity. While invariably seeking to distill the essence of his subject, striking compositions of fashion models set against neutral backdrops and portraits taken in a tightly-angled corner became his signature.
Born to Russian émigrés in New Jersey, Penn studied design with Alexey Brodovitch, an influential teacher and a visionary art director at Harper's Bazaar
. He bought his first camera,
a Rolleiflex, with the earnings from drawings published in the magazine. In 1943, Penn was hired as a graphic designer at Vogue
by another legendary art director, Alexander Liberman, who encouraged him to begin taking photographs. After volunteering with the American Field Service during the last years of WWII, he quickly developed a reputation for his striking style in still life and portraiture. At a time when photography was primarily understood as a means of communication, Penn approached it with an artist's eye and expanded the creative potential
of the medium.
Known for both his meticulous attention to detail and a rigorous work ethic, Penn initiated a revival of platinum-palladium printing. With a relative downturn in the glossy magazine market during the 1960s, Penn concentrated on his personal work and experimented with platinum-palladium printing. His large scale pictures of cigarette butts from 1972 were the first series
he conceived specifically for this printing process. Curator John Szarkowski selected fourteen of these photographs to mount Penn's first solo exhibition at MoMA in 1975. This single exhibition overcame a strong prejudice against commercial photographers being welcomed into the museum, back when photography had yet to become one of the main pillars of contemporary art.
Penn regularly donated his work to the Friends Photography Auction from the early days, helping to heighten the event's reputation. For a small charity organization, receiving a donation print from such a preeminent artist was truly a humbling experience. With our deep appreciation for his generosity and encouragement, we are honored to present the Artist of the Year Award to Mr. Irving Penn.
Irving Penn at work in New Guinea
Photograph by Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn
© The Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn Trust