Irving Penn

In preparation for my Senior Thesis Project, I have begun to study the work of great photographers. I began this exploration by looking into the photographs of Irving Penn, a 20th Century photographer, mainly famous for working for Vogue Magazine.

I just finished looking through a book of Penn’s photographs: Beyond Beauty, a collection of Penn’s photographs amassed and organized by Merry A. Forresta. I will of course study his photographs in more detail within the next year-year and a half. But for now, I wanted to select several photographs that stood out to me explain why.

  • Veiled Face (Evelyn Tripp), New York, 1949


[I enjoy this photograph for a few reasons. First, the light source is behind the subject (Evelyn Tripp), relative to the camera. In my opinion, the copy of the picture in the book I purchased (Beyond Beauty), the light source has a greater effect on the subject of the photograph. It is nonetheless captured in this version of the photograph. The invasion of that light gives the photograph an ethereal character, and increases the contrast. Another reason I noted this photo lies in Tripp’s left eye looking toward the onlooker as only her profile is captured. This adds mystery to the composition of the photograph.]

  • Cecil Beaton, London, 1950


[A friend of mine who takes photographs said that portraiture can tell a story like no other form of photography because the human face naturally tells its story (this is not verbatim). I might agree. This is what drew me to this picture of Cecil Beaton (another photographer). Beaton’s countenance and wears invited me to imagine the story behind this man’s life.]

  • Cretan Landscape, 1964


[This photograph communicates to me, above anything else, motion. Capturing motion in a photograph can be difficult, considering that it is in the nature of a photo to be still. Nevertheless, Irving Penn does it so well. Yes, it’s blurry – but that is part of the intrigue. Like literature, music, and other forms of art, what draws me to it is its ability to take me somewhere. this photo does that for me.]

  • Single Oriental Poppy, New York, 1968


[I love this photograph for mainly two reasons. First, this shows Penn’s eye for texture. Texture might be what I seek most in a photograph. Second, Penn creates an increasingly beautiful photograph with a dead poppy – something that might be considered ugly or broken.]

  • Mouth (for L’Oreal), New York, 1986


[This photo, along with previous photo and the following photo, shows Penn’s talent for finding and displaying different textures. Here you see the smooth skin, as well as the short soft hairs of the model’s face. Then you see the painted texture on the lips. The contrast not only displays itself via texture, but also via color. The viewer sees the white-painted face in contrast to the eight or so differing lip cosmetics.]

  • Issey Miyake Fashion: White and Black, New York, 1990


[Lastly, this photo from 1990 combines three of my previous favorite pictures. Like the picture of Evelyn Tripp with the veil, this picture contains a woman with one eye showing. Second, this picture details an interesting texture, as the poppy and the mouth photos – the dress looks both stiff and free-flowing. Third, this motionless photo capture motion magnificently, as in the picture of the Cretan landscape.]


2 thoughts on “Irving Penn

  1. I’m so glad that you’re exploring one of my favorite photographers. This post was fun to read. Next, you’ll need to explore Richard Avedon. Both Penn and Avedon are considered titans of mid- to late 20th century fashion photography. Of course, one thing that shouldn’t go overlooked is the artistry of developing photographs in a dark room. Digital photography can’t match some of the effects achieved by doing it the old-fashioned way like Penn and Avedon.


    • As you may know, I have photographers that I plan to study: Ansel Adams and Julius Shulman. Thus I will have three photographers that photograph differing subjects: Penn (portrait, still life, street), Adams (landscape), Shulman (architecture). I will certainly consider adding Richard Avedon – it will all depend on time and what I can commit to. Thank you so much for reminding me of Avedon!


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