100 Years of Penn

Condé Nast Archive

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates the life and work of Irving Penn. By Ivan Shaw

Irving Penn (1917 - 2009)
Of the many extraordinary things that make up Irving Penn’s long career, the 65 years he spent photographing for Vogue remains unprecedented in terms of both quality and quantity of image making. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, celebrates the life and work of Irving Penn with “Irving Penn: Centennial,” which runs from April 24 to July 30. This landmark exhibition, 100 years after Penn’s birth, looks at the photographer’s oeuvre — his extraordinary fashion and beauty images, still lifes, and portraits for Vogue, as well as his early output, nudes, and numerous personal projects done concurrently with his work for the magazine. 
Early Works
Penn originally began his relationship with Vogue as a member of the art department,  but in 1943, with the encouragement of Alexander Lieberman, Penn began photographing for the magazine.

Vogue cover, October 1, 1943

This is Irving Penn's first shoot for Vogue.
Irving Penn

Still Life with Watermelon

Theatre Accident

Three Poppies 'Arab Chief'

Cigarette No.37

Vogue x Alexander Liebermann
Although Penn is now considered one of photography’s great classicists, particularly for his brilliance in both lighting and darkroom technique, at the time he began photographing for Vogue in 1943, he was very much a revolutionary. Penn’s spare approach to light and set design was in accord with the modernist movement in fine art and design, though out of sync with the generally favored, more pictorialist approach of the other major photographers working for Vogue during that period, namely Horst P. Horst and Cecil Beaton. 

Cecil Beaton
The story goes that the 8x10" plate camera used in Penn's later work was inherited from Beaton.

Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn)
Penn married Lisa shortly after this shoot. This backdrop is part of the Met Museum exhibition.

Hell's Angel (Doug)

Standing Woman with Braids

Alexander Liberman

As legendary Vogue art director and, later, Condé Nast editorial director Alexander Liberman noted in his introduction to Penn’s autobiographical monograph Passage, “These images were so new, so divorced from the current imaginative traditions that they were a revelation.”

Five Dahomey Girls, Two Standing

Black and White Fashion with Handbag (Jean Patchett) Done as part of Vogue's "Black and White" themed issue.

Canvas Head with Hardware (Design by Jun Takahashi)

Black Hoate and White Face (Carolyn Murphy)

Innovative Photography
Some of Penn’s most important pictures from this early period were based on his radically innovative idea to create a “corner” in his studio by using panels to essentially enclose his subjects. Not only did this graphic departure evoke aspects of cubist painting, but by cornering his subjects — including fashion designers Charles James and Elsa Schiaparelli, writer Truman Capote, boxer Joe Louis, and artist Georgia O’Keeffe — Penn seemed to force them to reveal themselves, as though the corner left them no emotional place to hide.  

Joe Louis

Richard Avedon

Pablo Picasso at La Californie
Picasso only allowed ten minutes for this shoot.

Yves Saint Laurent
Penn would later photograph a much different Yves Saint Lauren in the 1970's.

Marisa Berenson Nude with Chains

Penn and Liberman would continue to work side by side for the next five decades, almost right up to Liberman’s passing. During this half-century span, Penn seamlessly evolved with the changing shifting culture and changing fashions, such as in his work with model Marisa Berenson. Penn’s nude of Berenson done in 1970, though quite stark in its execution, seems to speak perfectly to the sexual revolution happening at the time.

Vogue x Phyllis Posnick
Penn continued working for Vogue into the current century, almost exclusively with sittings editor Phyllis Posnick, until shortly before his passing, in 2009. The duo focused on portraits, beauty, and still lifes, creating some of the most memorable magazine images of the last 20 years.

Caroline Trentini in Chanel Haute Couture
One of the many extraordinary fashion/beauty sittings done with fashion editor, Phyllis Posnick.


Many of them have been collected in Posnick’s 2016 monograph, Stoppers: Photographs from My Life at Vogue. As Posnick fondly recalls: “He taught me to think beyond the obvious. Penn made everyone he worked with better. He changed the way we saw the world and our perception of what is beautiful.”

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