x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Forensic eye for the surreal

An assignment no other photographer would touch began a definitive career.

Irving Penn turned his lens to topics from fashion to New Guinean tribes.
Irving Penn turned his lens to topics from fashion to New Guinean tribes.

The American photographer Irving Penn, who has died aged 92, transformed the look of fashion photography and portraiture in the 1950s, and went on to produce definitive images of a wide range of subjects from Pablo Picasso to South American street children to the model Gisele Bündchen. Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, he embarked at the age of 18 on a four-year course at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, where the famed Harper's Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch taught advertising design. In the summers, Penn worked for the magazine as an office boy and as an apprentice artist engaged in sketching shoes. Later, he became art director at Saks Fifth Avenue. What he really wanted to do, however, was paint.

In 1942, he left for Mexico where he spent 12 months working on his paintings. Dissatisfied with the results, realising that he would never be more than a mediocre artist, he returned to Manhattan. A practical man, he washed his linen canvases clean of all traces of paint and put them to use as tablecloths in the apartment that he later shared with his wife and frequent model, Lisa Fonssagrives. He settled back in New York, working for Alexander Liberman, the art director at Vogue magazine, who instructed his new assistant to suggest covers for the magazine. When Penn failed to persuade the staff photographers to execute his ideas, Liberman asked him to take the pictures himself. Using a borrowed camera and drawing on his artistic experience, Penn arranged a still life consisting of a big brown leather bag, beige scarf and gloves, lemons, oranges and a huge topaz. It was used as the cover image for Vogue's October 1943 issue and launched his career. Subsequently, he published hundreds of photographs in the magazine and was so respected that his standard uniform of trainers and jeans, in blatant contravention of the unspoken dress code upheld at the office, went unremarked.

He would literally squeeze his models into the corner, photographing them against blank, white backgrounds with no props to distract the eye from the clothes. His images, stark and stylised, often verging on the abstract, frequently saturated with brilliant colour, became instantly recognisable. His artful creation of still lives - heaped fruits garnished with precious jewels, amassed cigarette butts, detritus gathered from the streets of Manhattan - belied his experience as a painter. Often he would sketch the photograph he intended to take before preparing his camera.

His subjects were diverse. In one week in 1950 he photographed the Swiss sculptor Giacometti, the French fashion collections and an assortment of anonymous tradesmen. Asked in a New York Times interview in 1991 whether he felt any obligation to make the subjects of his portrait shots appear either kind or attractive, he replied: "Absolutely no." When he turned his forensic eye away from couture dresses to native tribes people in Africa and New Guinea the results were striking, though some critics accused Penn of blatant exploitation. He travelled weighed down with equipment, in effect transporting his studio with him.

Back in Manhattan, his official studio was known as "the hospital". It was quiet, painted white throughout, uncluttered and essentially unadorned. It was a fitting environment for the unpretentious Penn, who was nothing if not a pragmatist. "I am a professional photographer because it is the best way I know to earn the money I require to take care of my wife and children," he said in 1958 when named as one of the world's top 10 photographers by Popular Photography magazine.

Irving Penn was born on June 16, 1917, and died on October 7. His wife predeceased him. He is survived by his son and a stepdaughter. * The National