I always thought we were selling dreams, not clothes.
– Irving Penn
Irving Penn (1917 – 2009) was an American photographer known for his fashion photography, portraits, and still lifes. Penn’s career included work at Vogue magazine and independent advertising work for clients including Issey Miyake and Clinique. Beginning in 1948, Penn travelled the world and compiled what he called, “records of physical presence”. He set up his “ambulant studio” on the edge of the Sahara, among gypsies in Spain, in the highlands of New Guinea, in the mountains of Nepal – and invited the inhabitants to step, for a moment, out of their worlds and into a new one. This new world, neutral territory for both photographer and subject, would serve as a meeting ground for nothing less than an intensely human encounter.
In a career that spanned nearly seventy years, arresting portraits, exquisite flowers, luscious food, and glamorous models populate Irving Penn’s meticulously rendered, masterful prints. Penn employed the elegant simplicity of a gray or white backdrop to pose his subjects, be it a model in the latest Parisian fashion, a famous subject or veiled women in Morocco. Irving Penn’s distinct aesthetic transformed twentieth-century elegance and style, with each brilliant composition beautifully articulating his subjects. Working across several photographic mediums, Penn was a master printmaker. Known for his pared-down compositional style, Penn often photographed his subjects in the natural light of the studio using minimal props; his fashion images were marked by their austerity, sophistication, and tonal subtleties. Penn also photographed workers in his series “Small Trades” (1950–51), depicting laborers in New York, Paris, and London posed in work clothes and holding the tools of their trade. Caught in both black and white and color, Penn’s iconic images are known for the honesty and humanity he brought to his subjects. Regardless of the subject, each and every piece is rendered with supreme beauty. His work has been exhibited internationally and continues to inform the art of photography.