9 Lessons Irving Penn Can Teach You About Photography

Truman Capote by Irving Penn © Irving Penn Foundation

Lately I’ve been studying a lot of fashion photographers. Why? I love how many of them started off as painters— having a concept in their mind, and being able to execute them in real life.

Not only that, but Irving Penn is certainly one of the masters — who isn’t as well-known as I think he should be.

When I first heard of Irving Penn (Helmut Newton was greatly inspired by him), I first was amazed by the stark simplicity of Penn’s work. Penn’s portraits were powerful, intimate, yet quiet. They had compositional mastery. The angles, shapes, forms and design of his images clearly showed his knowledge of painting and art.

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As I delved into his work, the more I was blown away by his body of work, the variety of his work, as well as his personal philosophies.

Below is what I personally learned, and what you can learn too:

1. Inspire yourself through painting

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Irving Penn was born in New Jersey, and studied with the designer and art director Alexey Brodovitch in Philadelphia, and after working there for a while, he went off to Mexico to become a painter.

However Penn soon realized that he wasn’t a great painter. When he realized that he wasn’t fit for painting — he washed off all the paint of his canvases, and eventually started to work at Vogue.

At Vogue, Penn started off producing cover designs, and then he soon ended up picking photography.

You could see early on in his work how he was inspired by stark minimalism — as he would pose his models against blank white spaces (eventually many other photographers would take on this technique, including Richard Avedon). Penn would often have his models stand in a corner of a white V-shaped wall, and in his work ended up fusing artistic and commercial photography.

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Upon studying a lot of master photographers, I am quite surprised to see how many of them were inspired by painting. If you look at Irving Penn’s work — in terms of how graphical it is, you can see how he etched out his images. Penn’s passion for painting and graphical art shows in his photographs.

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Which makes me realize, if you want to improve your photographic compositions, don’t study photography. Rather, look at the other arts. Study graphic design, painting, drawing, or perhaps sculpture, or architecture.

Cross-pollinate your artistic interests, and you will create work that is genuinely yours.

2. Stimulate your viewer

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”Many photographers feel their client is the subject. My client is a woman in Kansas who reads Vogue. I’m trying to intrigue, stimulate, feed her. My responsibility is to the reader. The severe portrait that is not the greatest joy in the world to the subject may be enormously interesting to the reader.” – Irving Penn

The worst thing you can do as a photographer is to bore your viewer. You want to create images that excite, interest, and stimulate your viewer.

You want to present images to your viewer which intrigue them. You want to create an open-ended story with your photos, and allow the viewer to come up with his/her own story (in his/her own mind).

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If you’re a social photographer who uploads photos online or publishes to the mass-audience, you have a responsibility to the viewer. If you wanted to create photos truly for yourself, then you wouldn’t publish them online. You would keep them for yourself.

But at the same time, you don’t want to betray your own photographic vision. You want to stay true to what you find interesting and exciting. And the more your own photos interest you, the more likely they are to interest the viewer as well.

3. Elicit a reaction from your subjects

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Irving Penn wasn’t known to direct his subjects, but he was known to say things like:

”What does it feel like to realize that this eye looking at you is the eye of 1,200,000 people?”

Saying things like that would elicit a reaction from his subjects— which would often be interesting, and shocking.

When you are making portraits of other people, see how you can elicit a reaction from them. You can do this by telling a joke, telling a story, or saying something shocking or unexpected.

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There are lots of ways to shoot a portrait. Some photographers don’t speak at all to their subjects, while other photographers try to engage their models.

Try to experiment and see what works for you. If anything, try to balance both; experiment both not talking to your subject, and talking a lot. Then find a middle-ground which helps you create the images that bring you joy.

4. “Prune away the inconsequential”

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Irving Penn’s work is famous for isolating his subjects from their context. He does this by employing simple white or grey backdrops, which allows the viewer to put all the focus on the subject.

Why did he start by doing this? It allowed him to achieve the graphical perfection he craved, and also to:

”Make things manageable enough to record them, to prune away anything inconsequential. (Pause). Because less is more.” – Irving Penn

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The fewer distractions you have in the background, the more focus you will have for your subject.

I personally am greatly influenced by Japanese Zen and minimalist aesthetics. There is some sort of harmony that occurs when you are able to take all the chaos of a scene, and simplify it. By “pruning away the inconsequential” — you focus on what you truly find important in the scene.

5. Feed on art

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I feed on art more than I ever do on photographs. I can admire photography, but I wouldn’t go to it out of hunger.”- Irving Penn

You need to feed on the art which gives you energy, excitement, and vigor.

For Irving Penn, that meant consuming art outside of photography. While he said he admired photography, it isn’t where he drew most of his inspiration.

Once again, eat the art which inspires you. That can be consuming only the work of the master photographers who inspire you, or other forms of art. Dance, painting, theater, music — these are all “fair game.”

6. Don’t be a specialist

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”The greatest privilege I’ve had in photography is a change of diet.” – Irving Penn

When you look at the body of work of Irving Penn, he didn’t just shoot fashion and portraits in the studio. He photographed trash he found on the ground, native populations, common workers, food, and also self-portraits.

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Even for a while he photographed butchers. Irving Penn shares how by switching up his subject-matter, he would be able to stay inspired:

”The butchers in between invigorated the fashions. To me it was like a balanced meal.”

To be a specialist as a photographer your whole life can be boring. We all crave challenge. We all crave variety.

Frozen food © Irving Penn Foundation

Imagine if you ate the same meal for the rest of your life. No matter how delicious or expensive, it would bore you. You would begin to resent it.

So vary up your diet. Switch up your meals. Don’t always shoot whatever you normally shoot. Try out other forms of photography.

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For example, while street photography is my primary passion, I have experimented with fashion photography, with landscapes, and now personal photography. I find that sometimes by trying some other form of photography, my street photography is re-inspired.

Experiment with different genres of photography — the ones that interest you. Then see how it can feed your passions in other forms of art, and vice-versa.

7. Find truth in the faces of your subjects

Miles Davis © Irving Penn Foundation

Irving Penn was infamous for making his models repeat the same gesture or movement for an entire morning. When his models would become tired of posing, then he would start to take photos seriously.

Penn would take insane amounts of photographs— sometimes over 200 contact sheets of images.

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He did this because he said that the more he made his subjects tired, the more they would show “truth” on their face:

”I am going to find what is permanent in this face. Truth comes with fatigue. He displays himself just as he is, just as he did not want to look.” – Irving Penn

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I feel that shooting portraits of someone (especially professional models) is one of the most challenging tasks. Why? Because people always want to show a staged version of themselves. Especially professional models— they have a certain “look” mastered.

But what you’re trying to find is truth in your subject. Truth in their face. You want to unravel and peel them, just like layers of an onion.

I think this is why many of us are drawn to street photography. We crave reality. We crave truth — especially in this modern photoshopped world.

Picasso © Irving Penn Foundation

So when you shoot a model, be persistent. Keep “working the scene”, and try to capture a certain look which you find genuine. The same is on the streets — be persistent with your work, and keep shooting until you get a shot you are satisfied with.

Don’t give up too quickly, and never give up your search for truth.

8. The camera is amazing

Irving Penn with his camera © Irving Penn Foundation

“I myself have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.” – Irving Penn

I feel that personally, I forget about the majestic quality of a camera. The ability to capture the moment and make it eternal is amazing.

Imagine people from a few centuries ago — to make an image was a pain-staking process. You had to either paint or draw a scene or person — either which would take a very long time, and never would render a scene as accurately as a photograph.

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Irving Penn calls the camera a thing of beauty — elegant like a Stradivarius in the music that it plays, but part a scalpel in its ability to carve into the subject you photograph.

Never forget how fortunate you are to be a photographer, and the magic of modern photography.

9. Find beauty in anything

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“I can get obsessed by anything if I look at it long enough. That’s the curse of being a photographer.”- Irving Penn

I think obsession is a good thing. Obsession is what drives our interests and passion.

The thing I am most inspired by Irving Penn is how he realizes that the longer you look at something, the more interesting or beautiful you will find it.

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This is immediately apparent through his experimental photos of his “still life” shots of ordinary trash, food, and things that people often overlook.

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As photographers, we are always searching for beauty, novelty, and things of interest. But everything is interesting, if you look closely enough. It is a matter of mindset, of perspective, and of being appreciate of all the beauty in the world.

Learn more about Irving Penn

Self-portrait of Irving Penn © Irving Penn Foundation