Irving Penn was a technical master, using a variety of cameras, techniques, and printing processes to capture his impeccably composed photographs. After studying graphic design in school, Penn purchased his first camera in 1938, experimenting with it during the first years he was working in New York City. When he was hired by Vogue in 1942, Penn had access to the Condé Nast photography studio, which featured state of the art equipment and printing laboratories. At a time when color photography was prohibitively expensive for individual photographers, the resources of the magazine afforded Penn the opportunity to master color in addition to black-and-white photography.
In his studio work, Penn most frequently used large format view cameras but broadened out with his use of a 35mm camera in conjunction with a telephoto lens for many of his magazine travel assignments beginning in 1950. In addition to cameras, Penn used other equipment—including photographic enlargers and modified fresnel stage lights—to achieve particular visual results in his photographs.
Having established himself in the commercial world, Penn turned to an interest in photographs as objects in the early 1960s. In 1964, he began experimenting with the platinum printing process as a reaction to how his photographs appeared on the printed pages of magazines, which were using increasingly thin paper in cost-cutting efforts. His years of intense research about and experimentation with the platinum process came to fruition in 1967 when Penn began reprinting his negatives in the medium. His new work was printed in platinum in the 1970s, and the 1972 series of cigarette butts was the first series conceived of entirely as platinum prints.
Although Penn is most known for his luxurious platinum prints, he also used gelatin silver prints to achieve different graphic results. For example, in his 1949/50 series of nudes, Penn bleached and redeveloped the gelatin silver prints, which effectively blurred fine details and created flat planes of light and shadow. His 1986 still life series of animal skulls, printed in gelatin silver, uses sharp contrast to emphasize the mechanical aspects of the skulls.
The pages below provide technical information about some of the cameras, techniques, and printing processes most used by Irving Penn.