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Photographer Irving Penn was born on this day in 1917 and lived 92 productive, creative years. He is known for creating images of some of the worlds most beautiful and talented people, some of the most ordinary, and even for images of trash he picked up in the streets of New York. Most widely known for his fashion work and portraiture of the rich and famous (longtime readers of Vogue should know his work well), he kept a tight grip on his humility and grace in a business dominated by shameless self-promoters, charlatans, and egos of monumental scale.

Gisele Bundchen by Irving Penn - 1999

I like Penn’s work for it’s simplicity and elegance. The people before Penn’s camera were granted their dignity regardless of who they were and where they came from. During his long career, luminaries from the worlds of art, literature, music, politics, entertainment, and finance found themselves in front of his camera. So did a lot of people from more common walks of life, and as much as I enjoy a naked Gisele Bundchen or a scantily clad Kate Moss, it’s Penn’s work with normal people that inspires me most.

Last year, the Getty Museum in LA mounted an exhibition of Penn’s series of working-class portraits called Small Trades. Among his subjects were waitresses, busboys, dance instructors, people like you and me. I had to go to the dictionary to find out exactly what a “charwoman” was and I’m better for having acquired that knowledge. I have far more in common with a charwoman than I do with Gisele Bundchen. Most of us do. Penn’s celebration of everyday people is far more illuminating than all the nekkid models in the world. At least to me.

Charwoman (Irving Penn, London, 1950)

Coal Man (Irving Penn, London, 1950)



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