Irving Penn 1987 retrospective – MoMA

I previously looked at the work of Irving Penn (1917-2009) through online resources (see here), specifically at his ‘pop-up studio’ work. I enjoyed looking at the work but was unable to find much of it in online archives, so tracked down a used copy of the book accompanying the MoMA retrospective of Penn’s work (Szarkowski, J. and Penn, I. 1987. Irving Penn). The cover material describes Penn as ‘one of the most distinguished practitioners of portrait and fashion photography of the last four decades.’ In this post, I reflect on my reading of that book.

Source: iPhone snapshot

The 25 page introduction to the book is written by John Szarkowski and provides a biography of Penn, covering his formative years, his influences, his working life, and his work to the time of the 1987 retrospective. Atget and Evans are cited among Penn’s influences and this is reflected in his early work; Szarkowski comments that Penn’s ‘personal sensibility’ is evident in these early works, saying ‘The raw materials … are as humble as those of Atget’s working class shops, but in Penn’s picture they seem dear enough for Tiffany’s’ (ibid, p19).

Penn spent many years working as a Vogue photographer at time when Vogue seemed to have afforded him the opportunity for a great deal of artistic freedom and financial support for projects (see also Helmut Newton as a Vogue photographer). Szarkowski offers a number of insights into Penn’s work:

  • ‘It was his idea that the portraitist must seem a servant to the sitter … , one whose function is to attend and encourage the sitter’s self-revelation’ (ibid, p24)
  • ‘In contrast to the prevalent magazine style of the years around 1950, his portraits are free of reference to the sitter’s work or habitual environment’ (ibid, p26). Szarkowski describes Penn’s work in which there is not even a sign of the anonymous studio as a ‘wordless conversation between the photographer and sitter’.
  • Szarkowski’s view is that Penn was less successful when he has worked outdoors … ‘from the studio we see with perfect limpid clarity his subject. In his work from out-of-doors we see, perhaps too clearly, his artfulness.’ (ibid, p35).

The book includes 156 of Penn’s photos (21 in colour), covering all aspects of his work. Here I reflect only on the portraiture.

Throughout we see the sitters stripped of context; there is either a studio backdrop or a void behind the portraits. This gives us an impression of the sitter without distraction and showcases Penn’s sculpting of their ‘self-revelation’. Because the sitters appear as their own people, rather than actively engaged with the camera and photographer, I feel that we are looking into their personalities; an absence of the camera-mask.

On the other hand, when it comes to Penn’s studies of sitters in traditional / native costume and decoration, in my view the approach does not work as well. Placed out of context into pop-up studios, the images look like museum show-pieces in glass cabinets, removed from their habitual locations. They do not view as portraits of ‘self-revelation’. For example Couple with Dog (ibid, plate 62) or Sewer Cleaner (ibid, plate 86). Of course my perspective is influenced by my own cultural background in which I expect to see the traditional matched with the traditional or of the same period; otherwise it feels incongruent or artificial. Likewise, if the same subjects were dressed in contemporary styles and photographed in a studio, I would read the photographs differently.

It is interesting to draw parallels with the work of Jane Bown (1925–2014) and Emile Hoppé (1878-1972), also making portraits in monochrome. All of the photographers emphasised the importance of interpersonal skills to draw out the characters of their sitters; they also recognised the impact intrusive photography techniques can have on the psychology of the subject. Bown with her 35mm Olympus OM1 camera and use natural light; Hoppé moving to smaller format cameras when they became available for his studies of ‘types’; Penn using pop-up studios to avoid bring subjects into a formal studio setting. All paid attention to and had routines for working with their subjects; all different but somehow looking to find ‘self-revelation’ or ‘finding their photo’.

In terms of my own practice, as well as paying attention to the process of engaging with subjects (which I am lucky to have significant experience of doing in my day-job), it is important to shoot portraits regularly, including with flash if needed, so that the use of the tools becomes second nature and as invisible as possible to the sitter.


Szarkowski, J. and Penn, I. 1987. Irving Penn. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

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