Irving Penn (1917–2009) was one of the most important and influential photographers of the 20th century. In a career that spanned almost seventy years, Penn worked on professional and artistic projects across multiple genres. He was a master printer of both black-and-white and color photography and published more than nine books of his photographs and two of his drawings during his lifetime.
In 1995, Irving Penn donated his archive to the Art Institute of Chicago. With that gift, the museum became one of the world's leading repositories for photographs by Penn and material about his life and work. Housed in two locations—the Ryerson and Burnham Archives and the Department of Photography—the rich, diverse holdings are united for the first time on this website, creating pathways into Penn's multi-faceted career.
When the Irving Penn Archives arrived in May 1995, they had already been organized in a methodical manner by Penn himself. By building on some of the artist's own subject categories and imposing a new structure, we gave further definition to what we had acquired in an effort to make the archives of easy use by scholars and the general public. This structure follows the extent of Penn's career, representing all the different genres that his career has encompassed, including ethnography, fashion, portraiture, and still life, among others. Linked closely in categorization, the two parts of the Penn Archives—the Paper and the Photographic Archives—can be easily cross-referenced. Housed in the Art Institute's Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, the Paper Archive contains documents and correspondence both personal and professional. The Photographic Archive, composed of negatives, transparencies, and contact and test prints, is held by the Department of Photography.
This archival material is extensive both in scope and content, spanning Penn's career. It serves not only as an account of Penn's career, providing insight into his working process, but also as a record of cultural, economic, and political trends in the second half of the 20th century. The files from his early portrait sittings, for example, contain correspondence, release forms, and studio diaries chronicling the sittings in detail. Many of these files (found in Paper Archive, Series IX) are expansive and reveal a glimpse into the lives of the influential individuals—actors, artists, politicians, writers, and more—whom Penn was asked to photograph. The Paper Archive is a significant statement of both the business and private dealings of a major photographer in the 20th century. Balancing this aspect, the Photographic Archive is an important index as well, documenting the breadth of Penn's work and his creative processes while working.
What emerges from the combination of the Paper Archive and the Photographic Archive is a complete view of Irving Penn's career, offering insight into how he worked and how he made decisions. Take, for example, Penn's worksheets, which offer an excellent guide to the ways in which the Photographic Archive reveals his working methods. Demonstrating the meticulous records that Penn kept for each of his photograph, each worksheet includes details such as the equipment used, film type, and even emulsion lots. Documentation of each picture taken and several contact prints are part of the sheets. These worksheets are similar in format to the registration of technical data seen in the print and job documents located in the Paper Archive, Series XVI. Always concerned with technical aspects, Penn maintained scrupulous records—often in the form of contact sheets—cataloguing his working conditions.
Contact sheets, which reside in the Photographic Archive, also exemplify how Penn carried certain ideas throughout his career. Correlations between advertising and still life are particularly apparent, as evidenced in a comparison between his Chanel advertisements and his well-known photograph 3 Steel Blocks (1980). Comparisons between early Ansco advertisements and later still lifes such as Italian Still Life (1981), also delineate how Penn would recycle and build upon ideas throughout his career. The little-known image Sally Kirkland and Mrs. Jarechi's Child (Liza Mears) playing dress-up (taken October 15, 1949; published in Vogue, December 1949, pp. 98–99) shows an early fascination with the parody of personalities that would recur later. Many other contact prints in the archive show little alteration between poses and illustrate how fully Penn articulated his ideas before he began taking photographs. One illustration of this is the mounted contact prints from the Paris Collection, 1950, showing Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn wearing the Lafaurie "Manola" dress. These marked contact prints reveal only slight variations from each other. The image Penn ultimately chose to print—in this case, only slightly different from the others of that sitting—demonstrates Penn's discriminating eye.
There are also many contact sheets of fashion and portrait sittings that correspond to paper files documenting those occasions. In addition, tear sheets from the Paper Archive found in loose format and in scrapbooks compiled by Penn often have the negative, contact print, and test print counterparts in the Photographic Archive. Exemplifying this idea are the Vogue tear sheets of a model wearing white "Marguerite" dresses, while Leon Danielian of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo portrays a very tempting Mephisto (Vogue, November 15, 1949, pp. 106–07). These tear sheets are interesting for the subject matter in itself. But the differences between the unused negatives and the published imagery also provide a notable comment on what degree of eroticism was permissible in 1949.
These are but a few examples that illuminate personal and professional aspects of Irving Penn that one can gather from examining the Irving Penn Archives. Additional gifts of material from the Irving Penn Foundation, which we expect to arrive in the coming years, should round out the archive completely.
—Jennifer Janauskas (edited by Nathaniel Parks)
Irving Penn. Large Sleeve. 1951. Gift of Irving Penn.
Irving Penn. Sally Kirkland and Mrs. Jarechi's Child, October 25, 1949. Gift of Irving Penn, 1997.21.45.