Irving Penn, 92: Fashion, Celebrity Photographer Found Beauty in the Commonplace

"Cuzco Children" (1948), of impoverished Peruvian kids, sold for $529,000, setting a world auction record in 2008. (Associated Press)
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By Adam Bernstein and T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Irving Penn, 92, a virtuosic photographer widely known for his spare, formalized images of fashion models and who brought the same striking technique to portraiture of celebrities, anonymous tradesmen and violent motorcycle gangs, died Oct. 7 at his home in New York City.

His younger brother, film director Arthur Penn, confirmed the death, saying he didn't know the cause.

The quality and breadth of Irving Penn's work led to exhibits of his craft in the world's leading museums, and like photographer Richard Avedon, he was credited with eliminating the barrier between commercial and fine art.

He was best known for his association with Vogue magazine, where he contributed 150 cover photos starting in the 1940s that emphasized the chic world of high fashion. Declaring that "photographing a cake can be art," his later work showed an astonishing ability to find the beauty in the commonplace -- even detritus.

"He made an ashtray full of cigarette butts, of trash sitting on the street . . . appear as elegant as a Parisian fashion model," said Alison Nordström, a curator at the George Eastman House photography museum.

She added that his photographs of the Hells Angels bike gang also made them seem "like Paris fashion models."

After abandoning an early career as a painter, Mr. Penn began at Vogue in 1943 as an art director and quickly switched to photography when he found it hard to persuade photographers to execute his unorthodox ideas of minimalist composition.

Although he retained much of the formal composition skills he learned in art school, he conveyed the elegance of high fashion by placing models in surreal and mischievous poses against bare backdrops and with rudimentary props. That came in striking contrast with the traditional use of elaborately draped settings to showcase both the model and the wardrobe.

Mr. Penn's best-known Vogue covers were studies in abstract geometrics. The April 1950 one showed the model Jean Patchett dressed in patterns of black and white, her head facing the camera but her eyes darting right to convey suspicion. Her black hat brim is horizontal, and the white silk scarf perfectly vertical.

Besides Patchett, one of his frequent models was Lisa Fonssagrives, a former Swedish ballerina with haughty cheekbones. She became his wife. Their artistic collaboration led to a series of alluring and enigmatic fashion studies, notably "Woman With Roses," depicting Fonssagrives in a sleek, midnight black dress, with flowers pinned to her left sleeve.

The pictures attracted much attention and made Mr. Penn one of the busiest photographers of the era. He opened his studio in 1953 and alternated between fashion and travel assignments. As in his earliest images, his preferred way of shooting was against a plain backdrop. That's how he showed butchers, charwomen, a cucumber salesman, plumbers and other workaday figures from the streets of Paris, London and New York. They were depicted only with the tools of their trade and identification by name and nationality.

Mr. Penn once said that his intention was to "photograph people at rest, in a state of serenity" and that it sometimes took him hours of conversation and shooting to get the image that expressed a revelatory quality about the subject. One of his methods was to provoke discomfort by wedging his subjects in a narrow corner. One of his memorable "corner" pictures was of author Truman Capote in a contorted posture as he shoves his knees into the back of a chair. Capote remained one of his favorite subjects. He also forced actor Spencer Tracy, boxer Joe Louis and the Duchess of Windsor into a corner at various times.

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