Exploring the Mundane and Magical Symbols in Irving Penn’s Work

I have always been a fan and totally in wonder of Irving Penn’s work.  In my High School years, his work that appeared in Vogue and Bazaar inspired me toward fashion and beauty, and influenced the way I look at light and structure in photo and design work and the importance of objects and still life in art.  His work, on exhibition here in NYC this summer, includes more than fashion though.  Take a look for yourselves and if you are in NYC this summer be sure to plan a trip to the Met to partake in this rare delicacy of art.  I am excited to be going this week and can’t wait to see his work up close and personal.



To commemorate the life and work of Penn—who is still the envy of everyone 100 years after his birth—the Metropolitan Museum of Art will host Irving Penn: Centennial from April 25 until the end of July, when it will begin traveling.

I love this image – sumptuous, sensual, full of life and abstraction, his lighting and composition creates an illusion of a malleable clay sculpture. I just want to squeeze it!

The macro detail of these cigarette butts, the lighting and slight graininess of the film, transforms trash into an exquisite work of art.

From the article: I-D online magazine:

In 1972, Penn produced a series of platinum prints of smoked-down cigarette butts. He shot the discarded cigarettes in much the same way that he shot high-end products — each cigarette, and its ashes, was perfectly composed against a white background. “The elegance of these pictures is similar to that which we find in his pictures for Chanel’s cologne for men, for Clinique’s lipstick or in brightly colored still lifes of flowers,” Michiko Kasahara wrote in an essay in Irving Penn Photographs (1997). “Whether the subject be cigarette butts or high fashion, they find equivalence through the elegance of Penn’s technique.” Although the beauty of these images is incontestable, Penn himself was strongly against smoking, and these images contain that sentiment. In 1975, Cigarettes was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. “That single exhibition,” Francis Hodgson wrote in the Financial Times in 2012, “overcame the strong prejudice against ‘commercial’ photographers being welcomed in the museum.”

“To call Irving Penn a fashion photographer is to misjudge one of the most complex and intriguing artists of the latter half of this century,” art critic and historian Andy Grundberg wrote in The New York Times in 1991.

One of my personal favorite photographic genres is still life,  In fact I wrote a poem recently that expresses how the energy of an object or a still life vignette “RECollects” my life, you can read it here.  I love the freedom you can take in shooting a still life, as exampled here in Penn’s work, the artist has total control in dismantling or creating life the way he alone sees it.  That is what I love.

From the article: I-D online magazine:

Still Lifes
Penn’s personal work was often a direct reaction to his fashion photography. Liberman once told him that the editors at Vogue didn’t like his photographs because they “burn on the page.” “I began to understand what they wanted of me,” Penn said, “was a nice, sweet, clean-looking image of a lovely young woman.” From 1979 to 1980, Penn photographed still lifes of found materials—pieces of glass and metal arranged with bones or even a human skull. “When the prints were shown,” Penn said, “I admit I was surprised at the hostility they provoked.” Of course, he went on to produce many unusual and artistic still lifes for Vogue and they became among his most iconic published photographs. In 1990, critic Richard Woodward wrote, “The steely unity of Irving Penn’s career, the severity and constructed rigour of his work can best be appreciated when he seems to break away from the dictates of fashion for magazines,” he wrote. “Only then is it clear how everything he photographs—or, at least, prints —is the product of a remarkably undivided conscience. There are no breaks; only different subjects.”

Iconic fashion images, riveting portraiture, studies in still life, objects, and everyday people, ala Irving Penn that shaped our current culture and had a huge impact on my personal sense of style and exploration of art beyond the traditional bounds that had been set for me. A true genius. Thank you Mr. Penn for sharing your art with generations!













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