Thursday, September 11, 2008

Portrait of an Artist: Irving Penn

Irving Penn’s Photography

“ A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”
- Irving Penn

Irving Penn was born in New Jersey in 1938. He studied design at the Philadelphia Museum School and soon began his work as the art and advertising director at Saks Fifth Avenue. Eventually he became a photographer and illustrator for Vogue magazine. He is known for his highly stylized form of fashion photography as well as portraits. Penn often used a plain gray or white background for is subjects as well as very structured composition and lighting. This technique gives his subjects a sense of emotion to the eyes of the viewer, or no emotion at all. He preferred the formality of a studio and would use portable studios when traveling. Even when photographing New Guinea tribesmen, Peruvian Indians, and North African Nomads he used the neutral background. For this, he always used natural light. Penn is known as one of the most influential advertising photographers in the world as well as for his post World War II feminine chic fashion photography.

The photo that struck me is this one taken in the 50’s of a woman in bed hugging a pillow close to her with the telephone to her ear. The black and white image shows the lights and shadows in the wrinkles and folds of the sheets. This woman is centered in the frame and the shot appears to have been taken from the vantage point of directly above her. Although this is not shot in a studio environment characteristic of Penn’s photos, the sheets serve as the neutral, all-white background. There are interesting lines in the image created by the woman’s contour and the wrinkles in the sheet. The sheets also convey an interesting appearance of texture. To me, the pillow and the telephone seem to be the central focus of this image. I feel like this woman misses someone who is far away. I sense the emotion of longing as if I subconsciously identify with it. I think that, according to Penn's definition of a good photo, this one is definitely effective.

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