In 1958 Irving Penn was named one of "The World’s 10 Greatest Photographers" in an international poll conducted by Popular Photography Magazine. Penn’s response was that of a true professional…
"I am a professional photographer because it is the best way I know to earn the money I require to take care of my wife and children."
But he also said, when opening his commercial studio in 1953: “Photographing a cake can be art”.
When I was learning about photography and wanting to be a photographer, Irving Penn was the ultimate professional. He took commercial jobs but treated every subject as though it was art. He was the master of the still life for magazine advertisements, but what impressed me were his portraits. They were simple, dramatic, unconventional (for the time) and just oozed with the character of the sitter.
I just seeing the Picasso portrait and saying wow, I wouldn't have thought of doing that. The basic portrait idea at the time was to take a pleasantly lit photograph of the subject, showing them looking nice. Using a portrait to make an art image but still capture the person in a recognisable way was an entirely new idea to me.
Penn’s portrait style went through three distinct phases. In his early days he photographed his subjects with props that told their story, for example, the composer John Cage was photographed leaning over a piano. Later he switched to a much simpler style with plain backgrounds and created drama with the simple lighting and the pose of the subject.
The third stage, and the one that impressed me the most, were extreme close ups, with tight cropping. He wasn’t afraid to use contrast or to crop out portions of the sitter’s features.
The light he used was mostly natural light from a window. He controlled it by the placement of the sitter, the angle of the background and the exposure. This had a major effect on me and I spent years trying to learn this technique. Today, it is still mostly a matter of luck if I get it right.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good examples of Penn’s work on the Internet. And the ones that I found are not reproduced well. If you are interested in portraiture, find a copy of a book of his work.
His advice to young photographers… “Every picture should have a reason for being. It should say what it intends to say in the clearest, most effective way, with the greatest economy of means. To arrive at this clarity you must constantly simplify, simplify; pruning away anything that can be spared. Keep the purpose of the picture clearly in mind”.