Irving Penn’s Corner

I’m not sure exactly how I stumbled onto this topic for a blog post. I was reading about photography and was struck by the work of American photographer Irving Penn, particularly the oddly composed photos of people standing in a corner.

Irving Penn, born June 16, 1967, was best known as an early fashion photographer, with a career that spanned from 1940 into the 2000s. He would help introduce plain white or grey backgrounds as a part of the photo composition technique, particularly with portraits and still-life photographs. He was unique in his depictions of people and in his process of developing photos and prints, often utilizing high contrast to give them a greater depth and increased clarity. The composition and settings of his photos were often extremely barren and austere, with the intention being to draw as much focus to the subject as possible. There is a consistent theme of shape through contrast in his photos, letting the negative and positive spaces of each image do as much work as possible to build the effect he intended. Whether he’s photographing objects or people, he had the “it” ability to build upon the subject’s character through his own artistic lens, intentionally capturing the most important parts of people and things.

As I mentioned, Penn was known for his bland backgrounds… something that modern portrait photography employs without a second thought. He expanded on this idea in his studio by building two large flats and putting them together to form an extremely acute corner where many famous (and infamous) humans found themselves on the front side of his camera lens. They would include artists like Duchamp, Picasso, O’Keefe, and numerous others that passed through the corner. Below you can see an example of how he would compose these shots. Also, due to rights restrictions, I cannot download the portrait of Duchamp, but it is one of my favorites and it can be viewed on the MET’s website here.

There is something about his use of space that is equally as quiet and contemplative as it is discomforting and uncanny… a combination that makes for some great portraits. I think the thing I find interesting about his use of this plain corner is that it almost forces the character of the subject to be the main focus of the piece. Body language, facial expressions, clothing, and the human silhouette are all accentuated by the simplicity of the composition and the intense contrast Penn is well known for. Take a look at his photo of Walter Gropius below.

Walter Gropius, 1948

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