Irving Penn died this morning at his home in Manhattan. He was 92. There are a handful of photographers that influenced me early in my life as a photographer: Edward Weston, Brett Weston, Andre Kertesz, and Irving Penn. His straightforward, confrontational approach was lean and muscular photography if ever there were any, in addition to being elegant and classy. His framing and composition was radical then and still is unconventional. He approached every subject in front of his camera with perception and compassion, but also with unflinching honesty. He was one of the greatest photographers in the history of the medium.
He is mostly known for his fashion work for Vogue Magazine and his portraits, but my favorite work of his was the "Worlds in a Small Room" series. He traveled around the world with a portable studio and a Rolleiflex camera and photographed indigenous people in their traditional clothes. His idea was that fashion exists throughout human culture and this was his attempt to capture their sense of fashion and aesthetics: their idea of beauty. It's simply beautiful, illuminating work.
In 1984, John Szarkowski, the former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote this about 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.”