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Penn was renowned for far more than fashion photography. His portraits of the Western world’s leading intellectuals, artists and writers — from Picasso to T.S. Eliot, from Colette to Cocteau — remain iconic, as do his pictures of lesser-known people — studio shots of Peruvian peasants, taken after completing a fashion assignment in Lima, and studies of workers in what he called the “small trades” — a New York City fireman, London charwomen, a Paris knife grinder — posing in his studio with their workaday tools.
One of his favorite subjects was his wife, a leading fashion model of the Forties and Fifties who appeared in some of Penn’s most widely reproduced pictures. They were married in 1950 and remained together until her death in 1992. Penn’s survivors include their son, Tom, a metal designer; a step-daughter, Mia Fonssagrives-Solow, a sculptor and jeweler; Penn’s younger brother, the director Arthur, and three grandchildren. His friend, Peter MacGill, said a memorial service will be announced at a later date.
In addition to his editorial work, Penn was equally admired for his advertising photography, especially on behalf of two longtime clients, Clinique and Issey Miyake.
Carol Phillips, who launched Clinique in 1968, came to the new Estée Lauder division from an editor’s position at Vogue and was thoroughly familiar with Penn’s work. His Clinique ads — characterized by clean, stark lines — were considered revolutionary because unlike campaigns for other skin care companies, they focused on the product and not on images of dewy fresh models.
Penn photographed Miyake’s fashion and fragrance ads for more than a decade. In 1999, in conjunction with a show of the Japanese designer’s work at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, Penn published “Irving Penn Regards the Work of Issey Miyake,” a 160-page book of photographs illuminating their long collaboration.
In the catalogue for that exhibition, Miyake said, “The clothes have been given a voice of their own!…Here were my clothes, but shown in such a way that they appeared totally new to me.”
Penn made art from even the most mundane objects. In 2004, the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted an exhibit called “Underfoot.” It consisted of 30 black-and-white Penn prints of chewing gum that had been crushed into the sidewalks of New York.
He was acclaimed not only for the pictures he made, but also for the process by which he made them. In 1964, unhappy with the way his pictures looked in the magazine, he began printing his new work and reprinting his older negatives in a difficult, expensive and esoteric process called platinum-palladium. It was a technique that had been used early in the 20th century by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. By printing multiple images of the same negative on fine paper that he prepared himself, Penn was able to achieve a startling degree of control over his images, to give them warmth and character and tone that slipped the bonds of commercialism to attain the status of art. He was one of the century’s master printers.
In June 2005, the National Gallery of Art in Washington opened an exhibit entitled “Irving Penn: Platinum Prints,” highlighting 70 photographs made from 1946 to the late Seventies, plus 12 collages Penn made in 1989.
Penn’s pictures, once available to collectors for a few hundred dollars, now fetch considerably more. Prints could cost up to six figures. In October 2004, a 1950 black-and-white photograph entitled “Harlequin Dress” brought $101,575 at an auction at Christie’s.
He was born in Plainfield, N.J., on June 16, 1917, but grew up in Philadelphia, where he attended public schools and dreamed of becoming a painter. When he was 18, he enrolled at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, where he studied advertising design under Russian émigré Alexey Brodovitch, the celebrated art director of Harper’s Bazaar. While still a student, Penn worked as an office boy and apprentice artist at Harper’s Bazaar, sketching shoes and still planning on life before an easel.
He graduated in 1938 and was hired by Junior League Magazine as its art director. Later he designed ads for Saks Fifth Avenue. When he was 25, he took his savings and went to Mexico. Living on the edge of a volcanic wasteland, he painted for a year before deciding mediocrity would be the best he could hope for. He washed the paint from his canvases and kept them as table linens.
In 1943, he was back in New York, where he met Alex Liberman, another Russian expatriate and the man who would have a lasting influence on his life and career. Liberman, then art director of Vogue, hired Penn as his assistant. Despite the young man’s total inexperience as a photographer, Liberman asked him to suggest ideas for Vogue covers. Liberman admired Penn’s concepts and asked him to take some pictures himself.
Penn borrowed a camera and arranged a still life with a brown leather handbag, a beige scarf and gloves, a large topaz and a group of lemons and oranges. It became the October 1943 cover, and Penn was on his way.
Seven years later, Vogue sent Penn to Paris for the first time to shoot the fall couture collections. Penn did not take runway pictures. In search of a setting with natural light, he found space in a former photography school. It was a seventh-floor walk-up, and the windows were covered with dust. It was perfect. The dust diffused the light, giving the scene a romantic fragility that served to accentuate the bold lines of the Paris gowns.