He was 92 years old, and had been working in fashion since the summer of 1937, when he began as an unpaid design assistant for Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. Only three years later, Penn inherited Brodovitch’s position as director of advertising design for Saks Fifth Avenue.
Of course, we know Penn best through his work with Vogue – spanning some 66 years – as well as through the cumulative star power generated by his 42-year marriage to Lisa Fonssagrives, the Swedish-born model with whom he sculpted the world of fashion photography in the 1940s and 50s. Fonssagrives died in New York at age 80, in 1992.
About fifty years prior, in 1943, Penn met the man who would one day herald the young photographer as his protégé – then editorial director of Conde Nast Publications, Alexander Liberman.
Liberman helped cultivate the style for which Penn became famous. It was the starkly lit, glowingly austere prints and renowned technical skill that earned him recognition as one of the most artistic photographers of his time. Penn’s work “bridged the gap between commercial photography and fine art…he revolutionized the way fashion was presented to a mass audience,” writes Women’s Wear Daily.
Following the death of his longtime contemporary, Richard Avedon, in 2004, the death of Irving Penn is decidedly sad. It marks the end of an era, and pushes to the forefront a greater need for current photographers – think Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino, Helmut Newton, Corinne Day and David LaChapelle – to mold their images for the world; not just for fashion, but for humanity, the way both Penn and Avedon sought to do. As the saying goes…a picture is worth 1,000 words.
Photo credit: Entitled "Café in Lima," Irving Penn photographs Jean Patchett for Vogue, February 15, 1949.