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In a working career that spanned seven decades, Irving Penn created groundbreaking images that blurred the boundaries between the fields of fashion, advertising, and art photography. Penn’s compositions exemplified the principles of modern art by foregrounding form and order. His masterful use of platinum and other alternative printing processes underscored an extraordinary intimacy with his subjects, which ranged from mundane objects to haute couture models.
Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, to Russian immigrant parents, Penn studied under the renowned photographer and designer Alexey Brodovitch at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now part of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia). He then relocated to New York, where, among various art director jobs, he worked as Brodovitch’s assistant at Harper’s Bazaar, creating illustrations for the magazine. In 1941 he dedicated himself to painting for an entire year, traveling through the southern United States and living in Mexico. Upon returning to New York in 1943, Penn was hired by Vogue as an assistant to its legendary art director, Alexander Liberman. Liberman recognized his protégé’s skills and helped launch Penn’s lifelong collaboration with Condé Nast Publications that would transform magazine photography. Penn’s first magazine cover appeared on the October 1, 1943, issue of Vogue—a still life of leather accessories.
In 1944 Penn went abroad as a volunteer ambulance driver for the American Field Service. He then spent several years traveling to France, Italy, Spain, and Peru on assignments for Vogue, establishing a reputation for striking compositions of still lifes, portraits, and ethnographic studies taken in neutral studio environments. Penn’s photographs made their museum debut in the exhibition In and Out of Focus (1948) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1950, when sent to Paris to photograph haute couture collections, Penn created some of his most iconic images in a studio lit by daylight with a discarded theater curtain as a backdrop. Among the models, Lisa Fonssagrives was a standout; after first capturing Penn’s attention at a photo shoot in 1947, she became both his muse and collaborator. The two married in fall 1950. In the decades that followed, Penn’s fashion photographs became known for their precise compositions, striking simplicity, and a restrained elegance that stood in contrast to images commonly seen in mainstream fashion publications.
In the early 1950s, Penn increasingly turned to advertising photography, where he experimented with lighting and dramatic sculptural compositions that revolutionized the field. Acutely aware of the limits of the printed page, he turned to early printing methods such as platinum and palladium printing, which granted him extraordinary control over tonality and elevated even the most mundane subjects—from cigarettes to street trash to memento mori objects. In 1986 Penn began a long-distance collaboration with Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake, photographing the virtuosic creations featured in the designer’s annual collections. Penn continued his innovative commercial work and magazine assignments, and resumed his painting and drawing pursuits until his death in 2009.
In 1995, Irving Penn donated his archive to the Art Institute of Chicago. With that gift—now housed in the Department of Photography and Media and the Ryerson and Burnham Archives—the museum became one of the world’s leading repositories for photographs by Penn and material about his life and work. Visit the Irving Penn Archive online.