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Irving Penn, a giant of photography, dies at 92

Penn, who began as a fashion photographer, crossed the chasm that separated commercial and art photography. His works are considered icons.

October 08, 2009|Mary Rourke

Irving Penn, a grand master of American fashion photography whose "less is more" aesthetic, combined with a startling sensuality, defined a visual style that he applied to such varied subjects as designer dresses, cigarette butts and cosmetics jars, many of them now- famous photographs owned by leading art museums, has died. He was 92.

Penn died Wednesday at his apartment in New York City, said his brother, film director Arthur Penn. The cause was not given.

In 1943, Penn started contributing to Vogue magazine and became one of the first commercial photographers to cross the chasm that separated commercial and art photography.

He did so in part by using the same technique no matter what he photographed -- isolating his subject, allowing for scarcely a prop and building a work of graphic perfection through his printing process.

Critics considered the results to be icons, not just images, each one greater than the person or object in the frame.

"His approach was never obvious," Phyllis Posnick, who collaborated with Penn at Vogue, told The Times on Wednesday. "He would make us go further and dig deeper and look beyond the obvious solution to a photograph to find something that was unique. He had a great wit, and you see some of that in his pictures."

Penn was a purist who mistrusted perfect beauty, which brought an engaging tension to his fashion photographs as well as his still lifes and portraits. One of his best-known shots for Vogue in the 1950s shows an impeccably dressed model glancing sideways through a veil that covers her face, as if she wasn't ready for her close-up. Lavish textures, the rich shadow and light became Penn's trademark.

Cosmetics ads

His most familiar photographs are the cosmetics ads he shot for Clinique that have appeared in magazines since 1968. Each image is a balancing act of face-cream jars, astringent bottles and bars of soap that threatens to collapse. He photographed them at close range to suggest the monumental scale of Pop art soup cans.

A notorious perfectionist, he traveled widely, carrying his own studio to the ends of the earth to photograph Peruvians in native dress, veiled Moroccan women or the Mudmen of New Guinea. Many of his personal photographs are collected in his books, luxurious objects in their own right.

Despite an obvious appreciation for the art and craft of a beautifully made dress, Penn strained against the unreachable world it represents. To escape it, or perhaps contest it, in the late 1960s he started photographing crushed cigarette butts and street debris.

He shot butts the way he often photographed designer dresses -- close up, with a graphic precision, against a white background. He then built his negatives into "platinum-palladium" prints, a meticulous and costly process that involves repeated printings of a negative on one piece of paper to create an extraordinary depth and richness.

New York's Museum of Modern Art found the cigarette butts exhibit-worthy in 1975. Many reviewers, who questioned whether anything by a fashion photographer belonged in an art museum, called the work pretentious. A similar debate stewed during a 1977 exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art of Penn's photos of urban debris.

Far-sighted reviewers praised Penn's ability to turn discarded objects into art, but the contradictions in his work still bothered some.

"Penn's models may be alluring, but he emphasizes their self-absorbed beauty in a way that makes them seem cold and inhuman," the Atlantic magazine wrote in 1985, reviewing a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984.

Painstaking treatment

Penn continued to photograph what he wanted -- Hells Angels in leather and chrome, European craftsmen in full uniform, African chiefs with feathers, famous artists and writers. Each subject received the same painstaking treatment.

"He didn't worry about questions of art versus commerce," said Colin Westerbeck, a former photography curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, which owns a large collection of Penn's work. "Photography is a mass medium available to anyone. A few geniuses, like Irving Penn, redeem it," Westerbeck told The Times in 2003.

Penn's contrary streak found expression early in his career. Starting in 1948, after shooting designer dresses for Vogue by day, Penn made 70 photographs of fleshy, curvy nudes as a personal project. After finishing the series in 1950, he married razor-thin fashion model Lisa Fonssagrives, who appeared in many of his magazine photographs through the '50s. The voluptuous nudes were a bachelor photographer's last fling, Penn later said.

After his wife died in 1992, he made a small series of self-portraits that showed a close-up of his face, fractured and disintegrated as a Cubist painting. They "expressed how he felt at the time," said photography historian Diana Edkins, a former curator of photography for Conde Nast Publications, including Vogue. "The Penns' romance lasted their whole life together."

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