Artist To Know: Irving Penn

Liz Catalano
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Prints by Penn Come to Auction this March with Christie’s

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, helping introduce a new photographic style for the 20th century. Penn focused on the “essence” of his subjects, often stripping away their 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 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. 

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.”

Penn was not confined to the world of fashion and 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.

He 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. 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 Penn’s work in 2017, celebrating the centennial of his birth. Remembered for his artistry and distinct style, Penn’s work continues to inform contemporary photography. 
View the selection of Penn prints in the upcoming Photographs auction, offered by Christie’s on March 31, 2020.