Irving Penn

Irving Penn was an American photographer who first came to public notice following his work with Alexander Liberman, Art Director of Vogue magazine. Although many of the staff at the magazine didn’t rate Penn, Liberman supported him and he was encouraged to produce his first cover in 1943.

Penn’s first magazine cover for Vogue in 1943

Later, Penn founded his own studio and pursued a career in fashion, commercial and travel photography. He published several books and held several exhibitions but there are a few projects that I find particularly useful to my studies this year.

The Cranium Architecture project is a reminder of Vanitas. The hard studio lighting really highlights the shapes, cracks and pits in each skull and I think using the word architecture is clever as he is highlighting the construction of the skull very clearly. I can’t say that this is a subject matter that appeals to me but I can see that the images are masterfully created.

Cranium Architecture

Penn has also done a project called Small Trades where he produced full length images of people working in different trades, against a plain background. It is almost like a catalogue of different trades people of the era. As I look through, I am struck by how many of the trades are no longer around yet the people depicted are probably just one of several generations that have all been doing the same thing.

I found that looking at these pictures was quite useful in terms of finding the ‘truth‘ in a portrait. Although I don’t believe it is possible to capture the whole truth of a person in an image, these images certainly capture what the person does if not who they are.

Small Trades

Finally Penn’s Cigarette’s project is also notable. The cigarette butts are photographed simply and clearly and leave the viewer wondering what type of person would have smoked them.


This video gives a short overview of some of Irving Penn’s work.

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