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Irving Penn

On Assignment

About Irving Penn

Irving Penn (b. 1917, Plainfield, New Jersey; d. 2009, New York) was born in Plainfield, New Jersey. From 1934–38, he studied design with Alexey Brodovitch at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. Following a year painting in Mexico, he returned to New York City and began working at Vogue magazine in 1943, where Alexander Liberman was art director.

Penn photographed for Vogue and commercial clients in America and abroad for nearly 70 years. Whether an innovative fashion image, striking portrait or compelling still life, each of Penn’s pictures bears his trademark style of elegant aesthetic simplicity.

In addition to his editorial and advertising work, Penn was also a master printmaker. Beginning in 1964, he pioneered a complex technique for making platinum-palladium prints, a 19th century print process to which he applied 20th century materials.

The first retrospective of Penn’s work was organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984. Following the landmark exhibition, he resumed painting and drawing as a full-fledged creative endeavor. Until his death in 2009, his innovative photographs continued to appear regularly inVogue, and his studio was busy with assignments and experimental personal work.

Recent exhibitions include Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. (2015-16) and Irving Penn: Centennial at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2017).

Press Release

  • Irving Penn: On Assignment

    510 West 25th Street, New York

    September 13 – October 26, 2013

    Pace and Pace/MacGill Gallery are honored to present Irving Penn: On Assignment, a survey of photographs, magazines and ephemera from the six-decade career of the iconic American photographer Irving Penn (1917–2009). The exhibition will feature images Penn took while working “on assignment” for publications such as The New Yorker, Vogue, Look and Vanity Fair and advertising campaigns for Clinique and De Beers, among others, for which he produced some of the most compelling fashion photographs, portraits and still lifes of our time. Irving Penn: On Assignment will be on view at 510 West 25th Street from September 13 through October 26, 2013.

    Widely recognized as one of the most prolific and respected photographers of the 20th century, Irving Penn began his photographic career in 1943 at the suggestion and encouragement of Vogue’s then Art Director, Alexander Liberman. The first color photograph Penn made on assignment for Vogue appeared on the cover of the October 1st issue that same year – the first still life cover in the magazine’s history – and Liberman immediately “sensed that we were in the presence of a major new vision, with infinite possibilities for growth and discovery.”

    Penn developed that artistic vision over the next sixty years, shooting more than 150 covers for Vogue between 1943 and 2004 (a selection of which will be on view), creating celebrated portraits of leading cultural figures such as Pablo Picasso, Truman Capote, and Miles Davis, and producing groundbreaking fashion editorials noted for their natural lighting and formal simplicity. With an elegance and economy of composition, Penn’s 1950 pictures of the Paris couture collections revised the visual aesthetics of fashion photography, and the act of placing his subjects – whether a model in Balenciaga, a Dahomey native, or tradesperson dressed in work clothes – against a seamless, neutral backdrop without context or narrative became a signature trademark of Penn’s style. This approach produced photographs that focused on the subject, rather than the environment in which they might have been found. The deft craft of his still lifes abstracted transformed common objects into elements of modern artistic expression. Liberman reflected in Penn’s 1991 book, Passage, that, “ clear was Penn’s concept, he could move without great convolutions from still life, to fashion, to portraits, to the world outside.” Likewise, the iconic quality of Penn’s images, not to mention the exquisite execution of his handcrafted prints, quickly transcended the printed page, as his photographs made their way from magazines to museum walls in New York and beyond. As John Szarkowski wrote in the catalogue accompanying Penn’s 1984 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York:

    ...Penn’s professional work elevates itself and its role by virtue of its great refinement of craft. The grace, wit, and inventiveness of his pattern-making, the lively and surprising elegance of his line, and his sensitivity to the character, the idiosyncratic humors, of light make Penn’s pictures, even the slighter ones, a pleasure for our eyes.

    Penn’s photography has been the subject of numerous exhibitions worldwide. Recent exhibitions include Irving Penn: Small Trades at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (2009-2010); Irving Penn: Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London (2010); Irving Penn: Diverse Worlds at the Moderna Museet, Malmo (2012), which travelled to the Kumu Art Museum, Tallinn, and is currently on view; and Irving Penn: Underfoot at the Art Institute of Chicago (2013). His work can be found in both domestic and international museum collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; the Morgan Library and Museum, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

    Penn has published multiple books of photographs: Moments Preserved (1960); Worlds in a Small Room (1974); Inventive Paris Clothes (1977); Flowers (1980); Issey Miyake (1988); Passage (1991); Still Life (2001); A Notebook at Random (2004); Photographs of Dahomey (2004); as well as two books of drawings. Monographs of his work include: Irving Penn (1984); Irving Penn: Master Images (1990); Irving Penn: A Career in Photography (1997); Dancer (2001); Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn’s Nudes, 1949-50 (2002); Irving Penn: Platinum Prints (2005); Irving Penn: Small Trades (2009); Irving Penn: Portraits (2010); Irving Penn: Archæology (2010); Irving Penn: Cigarettes (2012); and Irving Penn: Cranium Architecture (2013).

    For more information about Irving Penn: On Assignment or press requests, please contact Jessica Mostow at Pace/MacGill Gallery, 212.759.7999 or

    For general inquiries, please email