Master photographer Irving Penn was so far ahead of his time that many of his most important photographs came to be appreciated long after they were taken. With his passing this week at the age of 92, the photography world lost a legend.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Penn’s photographs would fill roughly 300 pages of Vogue magazine each year. He was among the first, and most effective, photographers to place his subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop, creating a minimalist style that would become his signature. He would also often pose his subjects within tight, unconventional spaces, putting the focus on the person and his or her expression.
His dramatic portraits featured such famous faces as Miles Davis, Pablo Picasso, Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, Igor Stravinsky and Marlene Dietrich. Although he was perhaps even more renowned for his still life portraits of everyday people.
The son of a New Jersey watchmaker, he was born in 1917. After initially attempting to become a painter, he began working for Vogue in 1943 as a photographic assistant responsible for helping design the magazine’s covers. He would sketch possible photographic scenes but was unable to get any of the staff photographers to take them, so he did it himself. His first cover was a color still-life photograph of a glove, a pocketbook and other accessories, published on Oct. 1, 1943. Over the next 50 years, his photographs would appear on more than 150 Vogue covers.
In 1950, Penn married his favorite model, Lisa Fonssagrives and he founded his studio in 1953.
Penn is survived by his brother Arthur, the director of films The Miracle Worker and Bonnie and Clyde, a son, Tom, three grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.
A collection of many of his most important images was acquired jointly by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1990. In 1996 Mr. Penn donated most of his archives and 130 of his prints to the Chicago Art Institute. The Morgan Library & Museum in New York acquired 67 of Mr. Penn’s portraits in 2007 and exhibited them last year.
A retrospective called Small Trades, showing sharp black-and-white portraits of 1950s New York plumbers, policemen and delivery boys, opened to great acclaim in September at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.