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In Memory of Irving Penn - PPA Today

In Memory of Irving Penn

An Appreciation of Irving Penn
by Ellis Vener

Irving Penn, born June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, N.J., died not far from there at his home in New York City, on October 7. He was a photographer and a devoted husband, father, and grandfather.

Penn photographed people, famous and obscure; objects of great value and rubbish of no value at all. His photographic style was straightforward and spare, yet graphically rich and unfailingly elegant. His images could crackle with a dry wit that makes it easy for viewers to get the point of the photograph very quickly, yet also conceal a larger idea, visible with a closer look. Getting an image to that point of outward simplicity involved painstaking technique--days spent honing an apparently simple still life, weeks working toward a final print.

So too with his portraits: You sense not only Penn's full engagement with the subject, but also the added power of the subject's being fully engaged with Penn. The tension is nearly palpable. You can see it in his portraits of Pablo Picasso in 1957, of members of the San Francisco chapter of the Hell's Angels from the mid-1960s, and in his gentle portrait of two Peruvian children from his "Worlds in a Small Room" portfolio. Do you catch the pun in that title? "Camera" is Latin for small dark room; what is a camera if not a small dark chamber, lit occasionally by a flash of light entering through a small hole in the wall, then rendering an image from outside the room onto the opposing wall? And what is our consciousness if not exactly that, too?

Sometimes when people describe a photograph they like, they speak of its painterly qualities. You cannot say that of an Irving Penn photograph. His are pure photographs that resemble no other form of art. Penn understood that the immense power of photography is its ability to describe a thing in fastidious detail, and he exploited and pushed photographic processes and mediums as hard as anyone ever had to achieve this. Exploiting the possibilities of light and shadow, propping and gesture, and through unwavering concentration to experimentation and exploration, Penn re-invented and popularized the once-dead art of platinum printing. In these works, you sense how his meticulous devotion to detail transmutes a mere reproduction into an object valuable in its own right, without getting in the way of clearly communicating the essence of the person or thing in the photograph.

Each viewing of a Penn photograph is a fresh and startling experience. His insistence on using photographic tools and forms as an intensified way of seeing somehow keeps the subject of the photograph continually alive and in motion, though it's frozen in a still image. As humans and photographers, we owe an incalculably large debt to Irving Penn and his achievements.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Professional Photographers of America (PPA) published on October 8, 2009 8:20 PM.

Wi-Pics Launches Mobile Data Association Technology was the previous entry in this blog.

Vital Signs: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like...Copyrights? is the next entry in this blog.

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