Irving Penn was among the renowned personalities in the realm of still lifes, portraiture, and fashion photography. In this installment of Lessons from Photography Masters, let us heed the lessons left by the American photographer.
Remembered and esteemed for his simple yet stunning snaps, master photographer Irving Penn remains to be one of the most influential personalities when it comes to fashion photography, portraiture, and still lifes. While best known for his work with famed fashion magazine Vogue, Penn also had works published in Harper’s Bazaar, under the tutelage of his instructor, photographer and designer Alexey Brodovitch.
Penn later on dabbled as a freelance designer and amateur photographer for two years, then, in 1940, took over Brodovitch’s post as the art director for Saks Fifth Avenue. In 1943, Penn photographed his first cover for Vogue, and since then worked on many of the magazine’s iconic covers throughout his career.
Penn has taken the portraits of many famous personalities, including Pablo Picasso, Alfred Hitchcock, Al Pacino, and the model Lisa Fonssagrives, whom he married in 1949.
The simplicity of Penn’s monochrome portraits, typically involving a subject set against a white or gray background, was so striking that many photographers from generations after soon followed suit.
Now, without further ado, we bring you some inspiring words of wisdom from the master fashion photographer himself.
I myself have always stood in the awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.
“Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world… very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe.”
“This is of course problem A in portrait photography – to get past the facade that people would like to present.”
“A beautiful print is a thing in itself, not just a halfway house on the way to the page.”
“A good photograph is one that communicate a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”
“Most of the time the ones who dislike the pictures the most confirm to me that the picture has hit home and is probably truer than I know. Nobody minds a boring picture, they mind a picture that has gotten to the soft core.”
“I think that b&w pictures are intrinsically finer than colour. I think that I have never seen a really great colour photograph.”
On photographing famous people:
“It’s painful and very exhausting. It’s a kind of surgery; you cut an incision into their lives, you move into their circumstances and then you pin them down while you penetrate even further into their personalities. It’s the most painful kind of photography and after almost every sitting I wish I hadn’t gotten into that kind of thing. It’s a matter of controlling a person and yet wanting not to control him too much so that he can still reveal something that is true of himself.”
Looking for more words of inspiration and wisdom from our photography masters? Why don’t you check out all Lessons from Photography Masters articles so far!