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Irving Penn, 'Grand Master of American Fashion Photography'

October 9, 2009 |  6:46 pm

Vogue large“Photography is a mass medium available to anyone. A few geniuses, like Irving Penn, redeem it,” said Colin Westerbeck, a former photography curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. He spoke to The Times in 2003 for the obituary on Penn that Mary Rourke, who often covered fashion and style for the paper, wrote in advance of his death.

Irving Penn2 He was “a grand master of American fashion photography,” Rourke wrote, and “one of the first commercial photographers to cross the chasm that separated commercial art and photography.” Some of his most famous photographs — the ad campaign for Clinique that he had worked on since 1968 — were also some of his most anonymous.

Whatever he photographed, he isolated his subject, whether it was a cigarette butt or veiled Moroccan women, and employed an elaborate printing process. Many of his photos became famous and are exhibited in museums; the exhibit in Los Angeles at the J. Paul Getty Museum, “Irving Penn: Small Trades,” runs through Jan. 10.

At Vogue magazine, his career stretched from October 1943 to August 1999, beginning and ending with still-lifes. The first was an austere composition of fashion accessories that made the cover; the last was of blackening banana slices, to illustrate the subtler signs of aging.

To those who worked with the reclusive photographer, he was simply “Penn,” according to a Vogue blog.

Penn, 92, died Oct. 7 in his New York City apartment.

-- Valerie J. Nelson

Left photo: One of Irving Penn's most famous photos for Vogue magazine appeared on the cover in 1950. Credit: Irving Penn/Conde Nast Archive

Right photo: Irving Penn in the 1960s. Credit: Bert Stern/Irving Penn Studio Inc.