Irving Penn along with Richard Avedon is often credited with revolutionising portrait and fashion photography in the 1940s. However, unlike Avedon Penn’s portraits tend to more restrained letting the subjects speak for themselves rather than Avedon’s much harsher and sometimes almost cruel portraits. Penn was also one of the first photographers to pose his subjects against plain white or grey backgrounds. Penn’s fashion work moved away from the idea of showing clothes in luxiouous surrounds instead focusing on them as shapes in silhouette.
Some of Penn’s most famous portraits are those where he posed famous people between two plain walls that formed a V shape. Looking through these portraits it is interesting so see how people reacted to the confined space. For example in the portrait below the author Truman Capote looks really intimated by the space:
Against a similar background made from three angled boards Salvador Dali completely dominates the frame. Looking at this portrait have the impression that whatever the background and the photographer’s intent Dali was going to project the image he wanted to.
When Penn does include more background in his portrait work there is often a surreal quality to the pictures. For example, the famous portrait of Cecil Beaton in front of what would even in the 1940s be regarded as a large ungainly camera with a female nude draped over it. This portrait has obviously been very carefully staged with the line from Beaton’s right hand, through is head to the camera and the corresponding angled lighting on the floor giving a real sense of depth ensure that Beaton remains the obvious subject of the picture.
Compared to the photographers of the 20s and 30s Penn’s work is very different. For example the work of Edward Steichen in the 20s or Horst P Horst in the 30s has subjects captured in very ornate surroundings adopting very classic or perhaps art nouveau style poses. In the post war world of Penn and Avedon all that classicism has gone.