Artist To Know: Irving Penn

Liz Catalano
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Christie’s Presents Irving Penn Still Life Photos and Portraits in March Auction

Born in 1917 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Irving Penn would become one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century. His work continues to turn heads when it comes to auction, reflecting his enduring influence. Ten prints from Penn will be offered in the upcoming Photographs auction, presented by Christie’s in late March of 2020. Before the sale, get to know Penn’s work and artistic style. 

Irving Penn’s career began at Harper’s Bazaar before he joined Vogue in 1943. Once there, he created a record 165 covers for the magazine over a period of 66 years. He frequently pushed the boundaries of traditional portraiture and advertising. For Irving Penn, Vogue was a springboard to introduce a new photographic style for the 20th century. Irving Penn portraits focused on the “essence” of the subjects, often stripping away backgrounds to a plain color or tight space. “They couldn’t run away,” Penn said. “For that moment of time, they belonged to me.” Figures such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, and Truman Capote were all subject to his lens.

IRVING PENN (B. 1917). Picasso (B), Cannes, 1957. Image from Christie’s. 

These Irving Penn Vogue covers have historically done well under the gavel: his 1950 photo of Jean Pratchett fetched $481,000 in 2008. Speaking with journalist Jay Fielden a year later, Penn summarized his portraiture philosophy: “We don’t call them shoots here. We don’t shoot people. It’s really a love affair.”

As Penn spent more time at Vogue, he was given the liberty to pursue his passions and interests. In so doing, he began to redefine photography as a legitimate art form, carefully controlling the composition, lighting, and finish of his photos. Irving Penn’s portraits became a fixture of the magazine.

Vogue editor Phyllis Posnick spoke of Penn: “[He was] a painter, and every time I described the concept for an article or showed him clothes, he would sit across the table from me and draw… He sketched almost everything he photographed and the photographs looked exactly like his sketches.”

Despite the deep connection between Irving Penn and fashion photography, he was not confined to the world of couture. During the 1950s, he took dozens of photos for his “Small Trades” series. He placed working people and craftsmen against a plain background, allowing them to hold the tools of their trade. A frequent traveler, Penn was also known for his photos capturing Indigenous peoples in Peru and New Guinea. In 1948, he photographed two Cuzco children holding hands and leaning against a stool. A 1971 print of this piece yielded the highest realized price for a Penn photo at $529,000.

Unknown photographer, Irving Penn at work in Cuzco, 1948. Image from the Irving Penn Foundation.

Penn spent several decades of his career studying flowers. In keeping with his overall style, Penn placed single flowers against plain backgrounds and photographed their colors, textures, and overall aesthetics. This work with flowers mirrored the rest of Irving Penn’s still life oeuvre. A 1973 photo of a dandelion with dewdrops will be available in the upcoming Christie’s auction. The lot essay for the piece describes “Penn’s consistent methodology, which lent itself naturally to presenting something as ordinary and familiar as a flower as an extraordinary, sculptural objet d’art.

IRVING PENN (1917–2009) Dandelion/Taraxacum officinale, New York, c. 197. Image from Christie’s. 

Penn continued creating art until his death in 2009, maintaining both his personal projects and his collaborations with Vogue. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a retrospective of Irving Penn’s fashion photography and other work in 2017, celebrating the centennial of his birth. Remembered for his artistry and distinct style, Penn’s work still influences photography today. View the available selection of Penn prints in the upcoming Photography auction, offered by Christie’s on March 31st, 2020.

Want to learn more about the style and auction histories of other artists? Check out Auction Daily’s profile of Takashi Murakami.

UPDATE AUGUST, 2021: Irving Penn’s portraits, still lifes, and fashion photography still draw the attention of collectors. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world in 2020 and 2021, many collectors took the opportunity to expand their photography collections. Irving Penn’s portraits appeared at auction several times. Sotheby’s offered an Irving Penn Vogue photo of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn in a recent auction celebrating 50 years of the company’s photography department. The 1979 print sold for USD 252,000, comfortably within the presale estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. Other notable works from Penn appeared at auction in early 2021. A portrait of Jean Patchett achieved EUR 118,750 (USD 140,100) with Christie’s in late June.

Beyond the auction world, Irving Penn’s photography continues to influence art. To acknowledge this, Cardi Gallery in Milan will present a major retrospective of Penn’s work starting on September 9th, 2021. The show includes photos from the 1940s through 90s, the full breadth of Penn’s career. It particularly focuses on the artist’s admiration of Italian culture. The exhibition will run through the end of 2021. Find further details on ARTE.it.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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