IRVING PENN (American, 1917 – 2009)

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, Irving Penn studied drawing, painting and graphic and industrial design at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia. Brodovitch, one of his teachers there, helped Penn break into the magazine world with an assistantship at Harper’s Bazaar. By 1943, Penn had become an assistant at Vogue and supervised the magazine’s cover design. His subsequent trips to Italy during World War II would see him turning to photography so that, in 1946, he worked as a Vogue staff photographer.

Penn is notable for his use of spare and delicate details in images that retain an artistic grandeur. So in the 1960s and 1970s, when fashion ideals were trending far left from Penn’s haute couture, he photographed cigarette butts and eventually had the images exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was a renowned perfectionist and worked privately on still lifes and curvy nude torsos that stood in contrast to the slim models he first photographed. “I myself have always stood in awe of the camera,” Penn once said. “I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.”

The majority of Penn’s archives belong to the Art Institute of Chicago. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery share a collection of his signature images.

Selected Collections: 

Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL

Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA

Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom

Fundacion Joan Miro, Barcelona, Spain

International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Turin, Italy