Irving Penn: 1917-2009

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Truman Capote, New York, 1948/Morgan Library & Museum

Truman Capote, New York, 1948/Morgan Library & Museum

The great American photographer Irving Penn has died. Penn, who was 92, was one of the towering figures of American photography, a master of fashion photography, portraiture and lusciously detailed still life. Along with the late Richard Avedon he was the king of a certain kind of supremely lustrous American magazine photography in the decades after World War II.

It was a golden age of magazines, and that’s where much of his greatest work appeared, chiefly in Vogue, where he started working in 1943. Penn put aside the overstuffed manner of so much pre-war fashion photography for a stark, simplified graphic style that perfectly suited a new era. It certainly suited the knife-edged beauty of one of his favorite models, Lisa Fonssagrives, who became his wife.

Penn brought the same spare intensity to his portraits of famous men and women. He liked to photograph them in close-up against a bare grey background or in a literal tight corner, an angular wooden enclosure built in his studio. Either way he achieved a brilliantly intensified encounter with his subjects. In those pictures of Pablo Picasso, W.H. Auden, Marlene Dietrich, Joe Louis, the Duchess of Windsor — the list goes on and on — Penn showed us people — wary, vulnerable, defiant — not mere celebrities.

In the late 1960s Penn also began hauling his neutral backgrounds around the world to photograph native warriors in New Guinea, mesmerizingly costumed women in Cameroon and hippies and Hells Angels in California. To his peerless eye they were all tribes in tribal regalia.

Penn was also one of the consummate darkroom craftsmen of our time. He just about single-handedly revived the platinum print process, which creates really luscious prints if you’re willing to invest a lot of time and effort. (And which helped give his still lifes of cigarette butts and blocks of frozen food their weird gravity.) It’s the kind of process that should be reserved for works of art, which is definitely what Penn produced.

I’ve written about him a few times at Time. In 1991 I made a comparison of his work with Annie Leibovitz’s, when they had both just published big books of their work. (Sorry Annie.) Last year on Looking Around I speculated about the possible inspirations for some his famous photographs in certain great paintings.

As you may know, Penn’s younger brother is Arthur Penn, the director of Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man. Quite a family.

UPDATE: We’ve added a slideshow of Penn’s work on today.