3 Things We Can Learn From: Irving Penn

by . October 16th, 2014

To some, photography is never really about the complexity of getting that perfect photograph. To these people, what’s important is the subject and that subject’s emotion and energy, as well as the details of the subject in the photograph. In this edition of 3 Things We Can Learn From, we are going to take a look at the work Irving Penn.


For those who don’t know, Irving Penn is an American photographer whose mainly known for his fashion photography. He is also known for being one the first photographers to have his subjects photographed on a simple grey or white backdrop — putting great emphasis (as well as highlighting) the subject. Aside from his work for Vogue, Irving Penn’s work mainly features portraits of creative giants, various ethnic people from around the world, and nudes. He also did modernist, still-life photographs of food, bottles, and various found objects.


Irving Penn’s photograph comprises an amazing amount of creativity and organization. It is said that Irving Penn is known for his great attention to detail, especially with his modernist, still-life photographs. Whether you are an aspiring fashion photographer, a photography student, or a serious hobbyist who has a careful eye for detail, looking through the work of Irving Penn is not only an inspiration but also a great reminder that a photograph does not need to have technical complexities for it to be great. And without further ado, here are 3 things we can learn from Irving Penn.


1. Photography is never about the expensive camera and lighting equipment — Despite having the luxury of being able to use a Rolleiflex and a Leica, Irving Penn eventually shifted to a Nikon system after being a long-time user of a Leica. Penn is also known to heavily prefer natural lighting to the point that he had to build himself a set of tungsten lights just to stimulate a skylight in his windowless studio. In this generation, many photographers—students and hobbyists alike—are often quick to compare camera gear (Which has the most pixels? Better noise reduction systems?). Some have this notion that to get a great photograph, one has to have the most expensive camera gear money can buy.

“Using simple equipment and daylight alone is for me a pleasure and a replenishment”


2. Don’t just click the shutter; photograph with a purpose even if people dislike your photo — The problem with photography nowadays is that many people would just do it just so they can have something to share on social media and garner brownie points. Most of these photographs are safe, easy, and oftentimes redundant. To Irving Penn, a good photograph has something to offer. It has to leave something behind for the viewer — regardless of whether the viewer liked it or not. What’s important is that it made them (the viewers) feel something. It is important to not only challenge ourselves as photographers but also to challenge the views and beliefs of our viewers because conforming to the trend and norm would just lead to stagnation.

“Nobody minds a boring picture, they mind a picture that has gotten to the soft core.”


3. Photograph the unusual and taken for granted — At some point of his career, Irving Penn decided to produce photographs that are intended to be viewed as art. Irving Penn decided to photograph cigarette butts which later then progressed into photographing other discarded items found on the side walk. To Irving Penn almost everything and anything is a subject to be carefully composed and photographed. Despite being discarded objects, Penn treated cigarette butts with careful attention in order to show the details of a once used item and give it a fresh new purpose.

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


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

If you want to learn more about the work and life of Irving Penn, we highly suggest you take a look at Passage: A Work Record (written by the legendary photographer himself), Irving Penn Portraits by Magdalene Keaney, and Irving Penn: A Career in Photography.

Did this post inspire you? We’d like to hear your thoughts at the comments below!