Irving Penn studied under Alexey Brodovitch at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) from which he was graduated in 1938. Penn’s drawings were published by Harper’s Bazaar and he also painted. As his career in photography blossomed, he became known for post World War II feminine chic and glamour photography.
Penn worked for many years doing fashion photography for Vogue magazine, founding his own studio in 1953. He was among the first photographers to pose subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop and used this simplicity more effectively than other photographers. Expanding his austere studio surroundings, Penn constructed a set of upright angled backdrops, to form a stark, acute corner. Subjects photographed with this technique included Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, W. H. Auden, Igor Stravinsky and Marlene Dietrich.
In 1950, Penn married his favorite model, Lisa Fonssagrives, at Chelsea Register Office. They met at a photo shoot in 1947. Fonssagrives died in 1992. They had one son together, metal designer Tom Penn, who was born in 1952. Penn died on October 7, 2009 at the age of 92. His younger brother was movie director Arthur Penn, who died September 30, 2010, at age 88.
Penn photographed still life objects and found objects in unusual arrangements with great detail and clarity. While his prints are always clean and clear, Penn’s subjects varied widely. Many times his photographs were so ahead of their time that they only came to be appreciated as important works in the modernist canon years after their creation. For example, a series of posed nudes whose physical shapes range from thin to plump were shot in 1949-1950, but were not exhibited until 1980. His still life compositions are skillfully arranged assemblages of food or objects; at once spare and highly organized, the objects articulate the abstract interplay of line and volume. His later works are made on aluminum sheets coated with a platinum emulsion rendering the image with a warmth and maturity that untoned silver prints lacked.