Irving Penn remembered

Irving Penn, June 16, 1917 – October 7, 2009

Regardless of ones profession, there are those in our field whom we admire and excel to be like, so when I heard from a friend more than a month after of Irving Penn’s passing away on Wednesday, October 7 at the age of 92, I sank into my chair feeling hopeless, feeling I had just lost my best friend.

Even though I never met Irving Penn, his unique style had a significant impact upon my own work when photographing people. I first became aware of his work when I purchased “Worlds in a Small Room”, which was published in 1974 by Penguin Books. This thin square publication now well worn with kindness over the past thirty years, it is still my most favorite cherished photo book.

What was striking about this collection of black and white photographs was that the sets were bare of any distractions; this way the focus was always on the individual or groups pictured. In addition the lighting remained consistent, always a cool natural northern light that produced considerable details and deep dark shadows, which were rich in depth.

Despite a number of the photographs in the book were taken inside a building with numerous large windows facing the north that flooding the interior with an even flat neutral light that painters love and Irving embraced, the majority of these photographs were shot in a large ‘make-shift’ tent that Irving traveled with. It’s large size, that of a modern day living room, allowed Penn complete control of the daylight, while the tents canvas also served as a perfect backdrop.

The combination of these features I applied to my photography when photographing clients and friends, though my tent was the inside of a studio and the northern light a single strobe light inside a large soft-box, it emulated very well Irving Penn’s vision. The only thing I did was add a large fill card opposite the light source to bounce light back at the subject, softening the shadows and also maintaining the details in the darker areas. Even today a number of my digital still-life photographs are set in a room that has the northern light exposure.

Besides Irving Penn's lighting approach to photograph, I admired his compositional style of angles, shapes and the drama the elements created as he filled the frame with the person or model when working for Vogue magazine. Above all, Irving Penn never stopped growing as an artist by resting on his laurels. He was always exploring new ideas, not only in what he photographed, but also investigating and trying different printing methods, including producing a number of his images as palladium prints.

With his passing, he was the last survivor of three who defined for several decades what fashion photography was all about. Now Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Irving Penn are all together again. May they share a glass of wine and reminisce how their lives paralleled one another.

Irving Penn, June 16, 1917 – October 7, 2009

Richard Avedon, May 15, 1923 – October 1, 2004

Helmut Newton, born Helmut Neustädter, 31 October 1920 – 23 January 2004

Irving Penn’s “Small Trades” exhibit at The Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
September 9, 2009–January 10, 2010.

Irving Penn
Small Trades
Virginia A. Heckert and Anne Lacoste
J. Paul Getty Museum
272 pages, 9 1/2 x 12 inches

259 tritone illustrations
ISBN 978-0-89236-996-6
hardcover, $49.95

NOTICE: All images featured in this article retain their original copyrights to whom they were issued.


Ian Foster said...

Thank you for this brief overview of the work of a great photographer, his work set the benchmark that others would strive to achieve.

Kathy said...

Egmont, Thank you for sharing and illuminating the work of this notable photographer. I can understand the important influence he had on your work, and the great sadness you now feel about his passing. Your post contributes to his legacy.

sukipoet said...

a most interesting post. duh to me. at first sound of his name i thought he was a writer. how lovely he had such meaning to you and that you honor his life by this post.

La Dolce Vita said...

what a lovely tribute, Egmont. I agree, he was an inspiration to those of us old enough to remember the 1970's!

I wonder why people think Penn was a writer? I have heard that comment before. my particular favorites are, Worlds in a Small Room.

blessings, Caterina

layers said...

what a beautiful write up of a great photographer--a trailblazer and inspiration to all who follow in his big footsteps-- I love black and white myself and his were stark and focused on the person-- and consequently-- humanity.

Liz.Blog said...

This is one the most beautiful of all the tributes to Mr. Penn I've read. Thank you.

And thank you for your very astute comments on the "Future of the Photo Book".

ooglebloops said...

A very sweet tribute- and I learned something about lighting- thank you!!!

Anna said...

Wonderful tribute and a great lesson on how to look at photographs, as well as what to look for; your post truly shows a more profound way towards appreciating even more the skill and sensibility of the artist photographer. Thank you!!!

Poetic Artist said...

Wonderful tribute. Wonderful photographer.
Thank you for sharing

Ange said...

And I too learned many things of great interest and importance (to me) reading this post. It seems you've touched on the quintessential essence of the artist: one who is always searching and inquiring and trying newer ideas... Wonderful Egmont. Thank you for such eloquence and sensitivity.

Judy said...

How very interesting. So many of those portraits I recognize.A very insightful post.

Betty said...

Wonderful photographer!!What a great lesson!
Thank you for sharing!
I'd love if you followed me,too(if you don't mind).
I'm already following you!

Hope you're having a great Festive Season!

Anonymous said...

Egmont, Thank you for this post. I've looked at your blog several times and finally joined yesterday- as you know- just takes me awhile sometimes to remember to do so- but I wanted to tell you how remarkable I find your work and your viewpoint. You are an amazing artist and I'm so glad you share your talent here on your blog.

kenflett said...

Such a lovely post Egmont, a lovely tribute.


neva gagliano said...

his work is fabulous!! you've put this post together sooooo well, and yes, the three greats are gone.
love the getty, sworn of LA for awhile, but would be grand to see this show.

rivergardenstudio said...

I can see why this book is so loved by you... what a wonderful tribute to this great artist... roxanne

John M. Mora said...

At MoMA in the reception area near the ticket boothn thety have a ten image tribute to Irving Penn right now. Went by on Friday.

Matthew Rose said...

terrific post, not only paying homage to the great irving penn and explaining your own process, but for reminding us all what a good picture is all about and how, as described it, is often housed in a small book and worn from the fingers walking through the pages. that is kindness and penn had a great feel for his people. thank you.

sondra said...

One of my most special books is Irving Penn's - Issey Miyake. Incredible.
Thank you for the post.

Anonymous said...

really enjoyed your tribute to a great image maker andb visionary, Irving Penn.
However, the picture of Stephanie Seymour was shot by Richard Avedon.
Mr. Penn had sublime good taste and I doubt if he would have a lady raise her dress like that... Avedon shock. A wonder someone else didn't spot it. Thanks, THB

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