A modern master, Irving Penn possessed a rare gift in his ability to capture the soul of both people and objects in a stunningly graphic way. Perhaps best known for his iconic fashion, still life and portrait images that graced the pages of Vogue, Penn was one of the most inimitable photographers of the twentieth century. Along with Richard Avedon he contrived many of the concepts that have shaped the landscape of modern fashion photography and set a precedent for the fashion photographer as an artist. One would however be foolish to proscribe him as merely a fashion photographer, as his oeuvre was superbly unbounded by genre. Boasting a career that spanned almost seventy years, Penn was paramount in curtailing the chasm between commercial and fine art photography which ultimately aided in narrowing the gap between art and fashion. Often exploring themes of beauty, decay and the captivating strangeness that stems from fusing reality with ingenuity. Occupied by an intriguing array of subjects from remote lands, to fanciful fruit to Salvador Dali, his images exemplify his finesse for stark simplicity and refined technique .
Approaching his work with an artist’s eye and pursuing it with a calmly incessant dedication, he radically expanded the creative potential of photography at a time when the medium was primarily understood as a means of communication. His innate ability to portray life’s diverse characters with a compassion and honesty imbue his work with a raw power and mysterious energy that can be appreciated on a profoundly emotional and intellectual level. Startlingly sensual and immaculately defined there is an accidental and unconventional allure to his work perhaps best demonstrated through his manipulation of mundane objects that challenge traditional ideals of beauty. Born in 1917 in New Jersey, Penn grew up with dreams of being a painter and studied at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts in the mid 30s. It was here that under the influence of Alexey Brodovitch – renowned art director of Harpers Bazaar – and through exposure to exhibitions, magazines, architecture and photography, he learnt the foundations of modern art and design.
His first attempt at fashion photography would in fact become the first still life to grace the cover of Vogue and consisted of an outré composition of a scarf, gloves, lemons, oranges, leather bag and a topaz. He would later go on to shoot an unprecedented 165 covers (more than any single photographer) for the magazine. Unafraid to experiment he administered both vintage and high-tech cameras, utilising unusual lenses and antique printing techniques. With a self-proclaimed thirst for ingenuity it was perhaps his constant diversity in subjects that fed his eager fantasy. An idyllic working week was spent in Paris in the 1950s where his clientele ranged inordinately from the likes of Alberto Giacometti to French butchers to a haute couture shoot – all taking place within the same studio. Indelible portraits – frequently featuring acclaimed silhouettes, couture gloriously captured in natural light, fleurs tiptoeing the line of life and death and pure detritus in the form of a series of cigarette butts are only a few examples of the sheer breadth of Penn’s career. His curious eyes allowed him to calmly transform the banal into enduring moments of surreal beauty, many of which are currently on show at The Grand Palais. In light of the centenary of his birth and in partnership with MoMA New York and The Irving Penn Foundation the retrospective traces his career and holds over 235 of his photographs as well as a selection of drawings and paintings offering an unmissable panoramic eye on his oeuvre.
Irving Penn is on view at Grand Palais until January 29th.