When you think of Vogue, you picture striking images of models in chic couture with exaggerated poses and dramatic lighting. We must, of course, give credit to the man–Irving Penn–who made these photos into what they are viewed as today–timeless masterpieces.

Born one hundred years ago on June 16, 1917, the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates his 70-year career with the “Irving Penn: Centennial” exhibit, showcasing over 150 of the artist’s photographs. From collections of Vogue photographs and portraits of the most influential artists of the 20th century, to still life renderings of everyday objects and photos of people from all over the world, Irving Penn’s images capture audiences even today. They show how he saw the world through his camera, and how he wanted us to look at the world.

The iconic Vogue fashion photographs are a “perfect blend” of still life and portraits (Foresta 4). Penn set a new standard for fashion photography with his bold lines and black-and-white color in these photographs. He emphasizes the long and elegant features of his models (Fig. 1), using the lighting to create contrast that gives the photos part of their dramatic appeal. The models are no longer just mannequins for the clothes, they now have character, which he strives to capture in a single instant.
To call Irving Penn simply a fashion photographer would inadequately describe the work he has done. His work in the world of fashion is just a single branch on the vast tree of his artistic career. The exhibit at the Met stretches from room to room with everything from a portrait of Truman Capote (Fig. 2) to a Locomotive Fireman from the 1950s (Fig. 3), and a whole series of burnt-out cigarette butts. Penn also traveled far and wide, creating ethnographic-style portraits of people from around the world.
Woman in Chicken Hat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), New York

Fig. 1 - Irving Penn (American, 1917-2009). Woman in Chicken Hat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), New York, December 1, 1949. Gelatin silver print; 38.3 x 36.5 cm (15 1/16 x 14 3/8 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

And despite the diversity in his subjects and photographs, Penn was able to unite them with one simple characteristic; the presence of a plain, unembellished background. This background was so original and central to his work that the exhibition actually includes the physical backdrop on display in the center of the room (Fig. 4).
As a whole, the exhibition highlights the artistry and talent of Irving Penn through the careful display of his photos. The “Irving Penn: Centennial” exhibition remains open until July 30, 2017, thereafter it will move on to Paris in September and continue its international tour with stops in Germany and Brazil.
Truman Capote, New York

Fig. 2 - Irving Penn (American, 1917-2009). Truman Capote, New York, June 1965 (printed 1968). Platinum-palladium print; 40.2 x 39.2 cm (15 13/16 x 15 7/16 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986.1206. Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1986. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Locomotive Fireman

Fig. 3 - Irving Penn (American, 1917-2009). Locomotive Fireman, 1950 (printed 1967). Platinum-palladium print; 42.8 × 32.8 cm (16 7/8 × 12 15/16 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014.268.31. Purchase, The Lauder Foundation and The Irving Penn Foundation Gifts, 2014. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Irving Penn Studio Backdrop

Fig. 4 - Unknown. Irving Penn Studio Backdrop. Canvas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source: Author's own image

  • Foresta, Merry A. “Irving Penn: The Passion of Certainties.” In Irving Penn: Master Images, 1-13. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.