In the early 1970s, respected and renowned fashion photographer, Irving Penn, shifted his interest from the printed page to the expressive and eloquent possibilities of the photographic print. No single series addresses this shift more directly than Penn’s series of platinum printed photographs of discarded cigarette butts. In this series there is an unspoken irony as Penn transforms what is commonly considered garbage into exquisite abstracted images, some which harken directly to his stunning fashion studies. “We may if we wish think of them as metaphors- as shards of ancient sculpture, or architecture fragments, or the discarded costumes of kings and jugglers- but it is important that we remember also their inconsequence, for otherwise their new nobility and eloquence, their classical rectitude, would not so deeply touch our hearts. (John Szarkowski)
Penn’s first creative interest was in drawing and painting. In the late 1930s he studied under Alexey Brodovitch at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art and published drawings in Harper’s Bazaar. In 1942 Penn spent a year painting in Mexico and in 1943 was hired by Vogue to advise on artwork for covers. By chance, he was soon making a cover photograph, a still life with a purse, gloves, lemons, oranges and a large topaz, which was the first of over a hundred covers he created for the magazine. In addition to the still lives and fashion photographs, Penn is well-recognized for his extensive series of portraits.
Penn is the subject of several monographs and has been exhibited internationally. Most recently, he was the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery of American Art in Washington D.C.