Portrait of an Artist: IRVING PENN


Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes, 1957 © The Irving Penn Foundation

Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes, 1957 © The Irving Penn Foundation


If you take the time to look closely enough you’ll find that there’s beauty in everything - especially in the simple everyday situations we encounter. If we open our eyes and our hearts to our surroundings we experience beauty in the old, the young, in the new or the used. If we care to listen, we might hear something fascinating…

IRVING PENN  (1917 New Jersey - 2009 New York City)
did exactly that: he took a look close enough to capture stories that were one of a kind beyond the obvious.

Nude No. 58, New York, 1949-50 © The Irving Penn Foundation

Nude No. 58, New York, 1949-50 © The Irving Penn Foundation


At the age of only seventeen he starts to study drawing, painting, graphics and industrial arts under Alexey Brodovitch in Philadelphia, whose work had given Harper’s Bazaar a new look and a new relevance at the time. In 1943 he is offered an associate position at Vogue’s art department and within months he shoots his first magazine cover. In 1950 he’s sent to Paris to photograph haute couture collections for Vogue, and the rest is history. With more than 160 covers and countless other shoots for the magazine, IRVING’s work became internationally renowned far beyond the exclusivity of the fashion industry.

The recognition IRVING PENN received for his stills and portraiture was due to his mind and eye, which were interested in much more than models and fashion. In the late 1940’s he’d already undertaken a major personal project: fleshy close-up nudes that he approached in contrast to the slickness of high fashion magazines. Throughout his career he’d return to nudes for a few other series of photographs.

On his travels for Vogue in the 60’s and 70’s Irving got the chance to take photos of what really interested him: portraits of people in natural light. Yet it was the studio he felt most comfortable in, so he developed a demountable tent studio he could take on his trips. He thereby created a room in which different cultures could meet and communicate with each other through the lens of his camera.



In the 1960’s Irving’s ideas of how his photographs appeared on the pages of Vogue differed deeply from his editor’s wishes - he got fewer assignments and turned towards advertising. Still - a major part of his work for Vogue were portraits of artists, celebrities, writers, musicians and other relevant personalities like Salvador Dalí, Audrey Hepburn, Pablo Picasso, Marlene Dietrich or Alfred Hitchcock, just to mention a few.


IRVING’s shots are memorable and one of a kind, which is not least due to the fact that he puts the most famous people of the 20th century in a position of vulnerability by setting up an unusual environment in his studio for them to react upon.

Salvador Dalí, New York, 1947 © The Irving Penn Foundation

Salvador Dalí, New York, 1947 © The Irving Penn Foundation


The background is always neutral. Often, he positions his models in a constricted corner space built by two walls set at an angle, which allows him to challenge his models whilst working with nothing other than a backdrop and a stool. IRVING PENN  sought to distil the true essence and characteristics of the person sat in front of his camera. He wanted to capture a moment of complete calm, without facades, without masks. Something raw and real, something that would tell the story of the person beyond the celebrity.

To this date, IRVING PENN  is one of the most outstanding portrait photographers of all time who influenced the look of the fashion world and strongly shaped the field of portrait photography as we know it.

A week ago, a big retrospective on IRVING PENN’s 70-year career opened at C/O Berlin.
Dive into the icon’s best shots until July 1st for 10€/6€.

Story by Anna Klappenbach