Irving Penn, a grand master of American fashion photography whose "less is more" aesthetic, combined with a startling sensuality, defined a visual style that he applied to designer dresses and fleshy nudes, famous artists and tribal chiefs, cigarette butts and cosmetics jars, has died. He was 92.
Many of Penn's now-famous photographs are owned by leading art museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, which in 1996 obtained the photographer's archive of 134 master and vintage prints plus proof sheets, correspondence and other documents. Most recently, a selection of his photographs was on view in "The Case for Wine: From King Tut to Today," an exhibit at the Art Institute that closed Sept. 20. Penn died Wednesday at his apartment in New York City, said his brother, film director Arthur Penn. The cause was not given.
Penn started contributing to Vogue in 1943 and became one of the first commercial photographers to cross the chasm that separated commercial and art photography until the 1970s. He did so, in part, by using the same technique no matter what he photographed -- isolating his subject, allowing for scarcely a prop and building a work of graphic perfection through his printing process.
Critics considered the results to be icons, not just images, each one greater than the person or the object in the frame.
"In Penn's photographs, generations of brilliant artists and lovely young women are endowed with dignity for their enduring moment," wrote fashion critic Kennedy Fraser in a 2007 Vogue magazine tribute to Penn when he was 90.
He was a purist who mistrusted perfect beauty, which brought an engaging tension to his fashion photographs as well as his still lifes and portraits. One of his best-known shots for Vogue magazine in the 1950s shows an impeccably dressed model glancing sideways through a veil that covers her face, as if she isn't ready for her close-up.
In another famous shot, this one from the 1990s, bright red lips drip with gooey chocolate. Suddenly, the dessert world's favorite food looks very unappealing.
Penn's most familiar photographs are the cosmetics ads he shot for Clinique that have appeared in magazines since 1968. Each image is a balancing act of face cream jars, astringent bottles and bars of soap that threatens to collapse.
Despite an obvious appreciation for the art and craft of a beautifully made dress, Penn strained against the unreachable world it represents. To escape it, or contest it perhaps, in the late 1960s he started photographing crushed cigarette butts and street debris.
Some reviewers found Penn's cigarette butts pretentious when they were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in 1975. Many questioned whether anything by a fashion photographer belonged in an art museum. A similar debate stewed during an exhibit of Penn's photos of urban debris at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1977.
Far-sighted reviewers, however, praised Penn's ability to turn discarded objects into art. "Each distinct, dirty, torn and ragged reject has been carefully selected, isolated, enlarged and transmuted from a cultural throwaway into a haunting iconic artifact," an Art News review concluded in 1977.
Penn stayed above the fray and photographed what he wanted. Hells Angels in leather and chrome and famouswriters received the same painstaking treatment.
"He didn't worry about questions of art versus commerce," said Colin Westerbeck, former photography curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. "Photography is a mass medium available to anyone. A few geniuses, like Irving Penn, redeem it," Westerbeck said in a 2003 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Besides his brother, Penn is survived by a son, Tom, and a stepdaughter, Mia Fonssagrives-Solow. Tribune staff contributed to this report.