“He put a camera in a carcass and waited for the wolves to come.” That, says Whitney Johnson, director of visuals and immersive experiences, is the kind of effort that makes for a standout National Geographic photo.
Irving Penn was one of the twentieth century’s great photographers, known for his arresting images and masterful printmaking. Although he was celebrated as one of Vogue magazine’s top photographers for more than sixty years, Penn was an intensely private man who avoided the limelight and pursued his work with quiet and relentless dedication. At a time when photography was primarily understood as a means of communication, he approached it with an artist’s eye and expanded the creative potential of the medium, both in his professional and personal work.
Born in 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey to immigrant parents, Penn attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts from 1934–38 and studied with Alexey Brodovitch in his Design Laboratory. A formidable Russian émigré who worked in Paris in the 1920s, Brodovitch taught the application of principles of modern art and design through exposure to magazines, exhibitions, architecture, and photography.
After some time in New York as Brodovitch’s assistant at Harper’s Bazaar and various art director jobs, Penn went to Mexico to paint in 1941, traveling through the American South and taking photographs along the way. He was ultimately disappointed by his paintings and destroyed them before returning to New York late the following year. In 1943, the new art director at Vogue, Alexander Liberman, hired Penn as his associate to prepare layouts and suggest ideas for covers to the magazine’s photographers. Liberman, another Russian émigré who had worked in Paris, looked at Penn’s contact sheets from his recent travels and recognized “a mind, and an eye that knew what it wanted to see.” He encouraged Penn to begin taking the photographs that he envisioned, launching a long and fruitful career as well as a collaboration that transformed modern photography.
After the Second World War, as Penn quickly developed a reputation for his striking style in still life and portraiture, Liberman sent him around the world on portrait and fashion assignments. These were formative experiences, which confirmed Penn’s preference for photographing in the controlled environment of a studio, where he could trim away anything that was not essential to his compositions and hone in on his subjects. Separate from these assignments, Penn undertook a major personal project, photographing fleshy nudes at close range in the studio and experimenting with their printing to “break through the slickness of the image.” It was a new approach to photography that stemmed from profound reflection on earlier art historical models, but the images were deemed too provocative and not shown for decades.
Penn’s creativity flourished during the last decades of his life. His innovative portraits, still life, fashion, and beauty photographs continued to appear regularly in Vogue. The studio was busy with magazine, advertising, and personal work, as well as printing and exhibition projects. Penn eagerly embraced new ideas, constructing cameras to photograph debris on the sidewalk, experimenting with a moving band of light during long exposures, or with digital color printing. Book projects were also a priority, and Penn lavished attention on their production, from the design to the quality of the printing. Determined to shape the body of work he left behind from such a prolific career, he also carefully structured and reduced his archives. Particularly after Lisa’s death in 1992, he sought solace in his work and in the structure of his studio schedule, and he would paint most nights after work and on weekends. In 2009, Penn died in New York, at the age of 92. During his lifetime, he established The Irving Penn Foundation, which grew out of the studio and whose devotion to Penn’s legacy is derived from contact with his remarkable spirit.