When I first heard about this photographer and his connection to the world of fashion, I certainly did not show much interest, since my tastes at that time were very distant of what is usually known as fashion photography. However, today I have discovered an author who has transcended the field of fashion photography with an artistic proposal that I would dare to classify as revolutionary.
Following the artistic trajectory of Penn, and without going into too many details that for that already are good biographies and articles, there are several landmarks that stand out in his professional career and that can help to understand some of the outstanding characteristics of his photography.
His training as a graphic designer and photographer began in the publication Harper’s Bazaar under the protection of its artistic director Alexey Brodovitch, who was also his teacher Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art ; his first photographs are street scenes, symbols and some portraits, and they have an individual character where some peculiar elements of the later photography of Penn already are already recognizable; I think, for example, of the image of the black child in the corner of a window with the word “pause” duplicated behind him, which we could consider as the foundation of the corner background where he made some of his most famous portraits for the Vogue magazine. We could say that during this period Penn developed his photographic vision, in fact speaks of those images as his “Camera Notes”
In 1941 he travels to Mexico with the intention of becoming a painter, and although his idea did not prosper, he may have met there with important European artists and intellectuals fleeing the war in Europe.
Back in the United States, he began working as a cover editor for Vogue magazine under the direction of Alexander Lieberman; His initial job would be to work collaboratively with the magazine’s photographers, but soon, and encouraged by Lieberman, he decides to work as a photographer.
Although fashion photography was his starting point in photography, Penn practiced different genres: Still Life, portrait, ethnographic photography, etc. Moving easily from one gender to another and allowing a degree of permeability between them that facilitates the aesthetic renewal of each gender by the inclusion of specific elements of other genres. In a way, Penn acted as a “connection line” that allowed the stylistic influence among the different genres that he cultivated.
Throughout the work of Penn there are usually present a series of provocative elements as backgrounds, props, light, elements, lines, pose…. For example, the use of plain backgrounds caused stupor in the world of fashion photography accustomed to recharge the scene with an excessive number of elements. Penn simplifies his photograph to the extreme, leaving only those necessary elements. Its simpler backgrounds isolate and focus attention on the subject. Penn says about his famous corner background that are “A niche to close people in. Some people felt secure in the tight spot, some felt trapped. It was a kind of truth serum “
Lighting in Penn’s photography, where he choices almost exclusively to use daylight, is a differentiating element. A soft light that floods the scene and Penn manages with ease to create subtle contrasts and areas of dark light. The position of the subject and the handling of the compositional forms with which he fills the scene are also a characteristic element of Penn’s photography. Penn said about natural light: “Daylight is the most delicious of the many kind of light available to a photographer”
Penn does not use the pose of the subject casually or with affection. The pose is a compositional element that Penn deliberately uses to draw the master lines of the scene. In Penn’s picture, nothing is casual; Every detail is carefully studied and defined. To illustrate this example I think of some of the portraits of groups, where each individual is placed and posing so that the whole scene is perfectly in balance. In pictures of fashion models, the pose is used to draw a symmetrical and balanced composition, or for create a dynamic visual structure that help redirect the attention of the viewer to a specific point.
The provocation is present in many of Penn’s photographs by introducing an element of imbalance or punctum in the composition: the chicks in the jar, the bee in the mouth of the model, photographs of butts or their decontextualized ethnographic photographs are clear examples of How Penn through these shocking elements seeks to catch the attention of the viewer. Perhaps this creative resource comes from his experience as a graphic designer, forced to create striking covers for magazines that hang in the window of the newsstand competing to each other to gain the attention of the occasional buyer.
Ethnographic studies (2013) Available at: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/IrvingPennArchives/ethnographic (Accessed: 16 December 2016).