Irving Penn, RIP

Irving Penn, the American portrait, fashion and still life photographer extraordinaire, has died at the age of 92. His career began in the 1940s at Vogue magazine, and continued fervently right up until his death. I can think of no other photographer whose work is so dear to my heart and so deeply influential on my own photography. In my mind, he was the greatest.

In the last few months of his life, pianist Bill Evans called his friend and collaborator Tony Bennett and told the singer “Forget about everything else. Just concentrate on truth and beauty, that’s it.”

Truth and beauty: those two words describe Penn’s work so well. Whether a skull or a spilled purse, a portrait of Picasso or of a cigarette butt, Irving Penn created spaces where you could see truth and beauty in the world. I flew to DC and back in one day just to see his his 2005 show Irving Penn: Platinum Prints at the National Gallery. We all have certain days when we feel we have crossed some threshold and been increased by the passage. That day was one for me. The National Gallery is a wonder in itself, both in its architecture and its holdings. Penn’s radiant platinum prints held me captive for hours. I just couldn’t stop looking at them.

John Szarkowski wrote of Irving Penn “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.” He will be sorely missed.

Andy Grundberg has an obituary here.