Remembering Irving Penn (1917-2009)

As followers of the UnBeige Twitter feed were among the first in the world to learn, photographer Irving Penn died yesterday at the age of 92. Whether capturing the artful drape of a Balenciaga gown, Saul Steinberg with a bag over his head (at left), an underwater welder ill at ease on land, or a piece of chewed gum on the sidewalk, Penn imparted his subjects with a distinctive, graphic grace that convinced the viewer to take a longer look. Among the lessons to glean from his New York Times obituary? Don’t be afraid to do it yourself! Writer Andy Grundberg explains:

Mr. Penn’s first assignment [as assistant to Vogue art director Alexander Liberman] was to supervise the design of Vogue‘s covers. Sketching several possible photographic scenes, he was unable to interest the staff photographers in taking them, so he took to the photo studio himself, at Liberman’s suggestion. The first result was a color still-life photograph of a glove, a pocketbook and other accessories, published as the cover of Vogue on Oct. 1, 1943. Mr. Penn’s photographs appeared on more than 150 Vogue covers over the next 50 years.

Another take-home message? The power of hugs!

In World War II Mr. Penn drove an ambulance in Italy. Arriving in Rome in 1944, he spied the artist Giorgio de Chirico carrying a shopping bag of vegetables home from the market. “I rushed up and embraced him,” Mr. Penn recalled in Passage. “To me he was the heroic de Chirico; to him I was a total stranger, probably demented. Still, he was moved and said, ‘Come home and have lunch with us.’ For two days he showed me his Rome.” During those two days Mr. Penn made his first black-and-white portraits, beginning what would become a celebrated archive of the leading artists, writers, and performers of the second half of the 20th century.

Previously on UnBeige:

  • Irving Penn’s ‘Small Trades’ Get Big Show at Getty Center
  • Getty Museum Acquires Penn Photographs
  • Putting Penn to Paper at the Morgan Library

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