To begin with, attraction isn’t necessarily physical, even if it subsequently becomes so. The same can be said about Irving Penn’s work – it’s attractive. Not having any particular type, nor special fascination or object, be it a nude body, street signs, or a pitcher – he chooses carefully and has his preferences, but they aren’t fixed, they are extraordinarily attractive.


Irving Penn is doubtlessly the most prolific and respected photographer of the 20th century. He’s mostly known for his fashion photography, portraits, and still lives. Penn’s career included groundbreaking editorials for Vogue magazine, and innovative commercial imagery for clients such as Issey Miyake, Clinique, General Foods, and De Beers.

Penn’s extensive artwork explored the boundaries of personal and public expressions. He played within art and commerce through compelling images that expanded the creative limits of the photographic medium of the 20th century.



January 29 – March 5, 2016 Pace/MacGill Gallery NYC will be exhibiting Irving Penn’s “Personal Work”, which will include “Bone Forest” (New York, 1980), “The Fallen Pitcher” (New York, 1980), “Nude No. 55” (New York, c. 1949-1950), “The Bath (A) (Dancers Workshop of San
Francisco)” (San Francisco, 1967), “Vacancy (with doorknob)” (New York, 1939) and many more. This carefully selected collection of images will give the observer another point of view on Penn’s work, more personal point of view.

In 1949, just a year before Irving Penn’s editorial images of the Paris couture collections created new visual aesthetics of fashion photography, Penn began what is considered perhaps his most personal but least known compilation: studies of tightly-framed, corpulent nudes that explore the beauty and physicality of the female form.

Women he chose as models and the way he pictured them was highly unconventional by fashion standards that time. Although charged with sexual undertone the images were extraordinary for that period, with twisted and stretched skins, folded fleshy body parts, mounded hips, puddled breasts and extra bellies. Even if most of the pictures lack limbs and heads, Penn’s figures are always complete in their partiality, just as ancient sculptures representing the Goddesses, so these nudes represent the Woman and fertility, embracing the concept of bodily beauty that is not prescriptive, nor trendy or exclusive.



Unconventional in both subject and composition, Penn’s series were also radical in technique. He drastically bleached, overexposed, and redeveloped his prints to create stunningly unusual tonal effects.

For example, a photograph “Woman Turning Over” (New York, 1995) having a painting effect concealed through bleaching, is still recognizable as a photograph. This image speaks humanity, and is excessively honest. Known for his pared-down compositional style, Penn often photographed his subjects in the natural light of the studio using minimal decorations and additions. His fashion images were accurate, sophisticated, appealing and effective. Photographer himself has said:

“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it; it is in one word: effective.”

Being successful at creating the effect of la femme with his series of “Nudes”, in unconventional forms and formats, also in creating commercial images that work as landmarks while travelling on the historic path of fashion and advertising. Penn’s work illuminates passion. Passion towards chosen subjects and techniques. Both, passion and attraction are personal, always straightforward, not needing extras.



Not only within portraiture, but also with still life, Penn’s compositions are highly organized. They stand as assemblages of objects, articulating the abstract interplay of lines and volumes. Penn was one of the first photographers to set his subjects against a simple grey or white background, using effectively the style notion of “less is more”. Penn’s photographs are composed with a great attention to detail in a pure and simple way. His black and white prints are notable for their deep contrast, giving them a highly clean look.

Here, the question of truth is irrelevant. Because Penn’s work is attractive, honestly and simply attractive. One can stare at his subjects for ages, observe them, contemplate them. And his subjects… they don’t know that they’ve been observed for such a long time, they don’t know that they’ve been framed, captured into a frame of attraction.


Viewing Irving Penn’s “Personal Work” is like reading between the lines. So simple and effective, yet his works tell the viewer more than expected. And here, expectations play conclusive role. Here the expectations can be compare to the expectations of a marriage. So completely does he enter his photography that he and his subjects become engaged in a consensual relation, a mutual give and take that is more than plain passion or obvious love, it’s the everlasting attraction than anything else that possesses the viewer. Every object of Irving Penn becomes gradually attractively narrated. And this style of narration should be known and celebrated as the legacy of Irving Penn.

And it feels good to be attractive.


Written by Julia Ahtijainen
Published in LE MILE magazine