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NEW YORK — Irving Penn, the master photographer whose fashion images in Vogue magazine for more than six decades bridged the gap between commercial photography and fine art, died Wednesday morning at his home in New York City. He was 92.
Beginning in 1943, Penn had a long career with Vogue, where he revolutionized the way fashion was presented to a mass audience. He shot more than 150 covers, more than any other single photographer, and was consistently showcased in the magazine’s pages.
“In my career, I have met no one else who worked with the level of imaginative intensity and economy of Irving Penn,” said Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. “His photographs were as exquisite and electrifying in the last year of his life as they were in 1943, when he started contributing to Vogue. To have been a colleague and friend of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century is a privilege greater than I could have ever imagined.”
Karl Lagerfeld told WWD his most treasured Penn print is a photo of his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives, in a look from the winter 1950 collection of Cristobal Balenciaga. “He was the kindest man on earth. His work was exquisite,” said Lagerfeld. “We used to spend hours chatting together. He used to speak about Paris in the Fifties.”
“His work in Vogue was not only focused on fashion — and I think that was very important for the magazine,” said Vince Aletti, photo critic and adjunct curator of the International Center of Photography. “He had a great vision and clearly loved his subjects. His shots were very reserved, spare, precise.”
Phyllis Posnick, Vogue’s executive fashion editor, first worked with Penn about 25 years ago as an assistant and then, later on, at Vogue. Posnick said while Penn did not like to be out in public and avoided being interviewed, he loved people and was always extremely accessible to other photographers. “More than any other photographer, he made us all go deeper and look beyond the obvious,” Posnick remarked. “He always kept digging and he always came up with something extraordinary.”
Penn and Richard Avedon were generally regarded as the two dominant fashion photographers of the mid-20th century, but their approaches were as different as their personalities. Avedon, who died in 2004, was almost as visible in front of the lens as behind it. His work, a longtime staple of Harper’s Bazaar, swirled with movement and vigor. Penn, shy to the point of reclusiveness, made pictures that were more cerebral. They reflected his early training as a painter. He related well to the architectural designs of Balenciaga and Issey Miyake.
“In [Penn’s] fashion shots,” wrote historian Colin McDowell in 2000, “it is the light in the spaces around the figures that gives it a unique quality. His fashion work was intimate but distant, a mixture of grandeur and emotion.”
George Chinsee, a WWD staff photographer and former retoucher and assistant to Penn, said the photographer was very strict in how he kept the studio during a shoot. “No one called him Irving — everyone called him Mr. Penn,” said Chinsee. “There was no talking or smoking, except for the conversation between his subject. Whenever someone came into the studio, he sat down and started talking to them. That conversation continued until the end of the shoot. It helped distract them.”
Leo Lerman, former editor in chief of Vanity Fair, wrote in his since-published diary on June 10, 1977 about being photographed by Penn, who also shot for the magazine. “It was intercourse on the highest level of being,” he wrote. “He nourishes, unlike Dick Avedon, who consumes. Irving brings out the finest in his subject. This was like a two-man meditation.”
Designer Bill Blass put it more succinctly when he told WWD in 1992: “The most influential fashion photographer in the last three decades is Irving Penn. No other photographer comes close to approaching him.”