Irving Penn: Worlds in a Small Room


Best known for his fashion photography, Irving Penn’s portfolio also includes ethnographic photographs from around the world.

Irving Penn is best known for his fashion photography, and portraits, through his works for the Vogue magazine, and as well as his advertisement campaign works for clients like L’oreal and Clinique. He captured greatest portraits of celebrities, models, icons, politicians, artists.. However, he embraced all different kinds of people from all around the world, particularly people who had different backgrounds. Worlds in a Small Room came to life out of this interest; it a series of Mr. Penn’s portraits that he created around the world. For his long-term project, Mr. Penn constructed an ‘ambulant studio’ that he assembled on location. This setup allowed him to stage the locals in front of his canvas while keeping them close to their natural residence.

“The [portable tent] studio became for us both a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, since I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives. It was not my home since I had obviously come from elsewhere far away. But in this limbo was in us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often I could tell a moving experience for the subjects themselves.”

Mr. Penn was among the first photographers to pose subjects against his signature canvas — a simple grey or white backdrop — that he lit with natural light only. He generally used zero props beyond a person’s clothing, focusing his center of attention on the subjects only. His photography style has taught us the simplicity around the subjects creates powerful portraits by turning the point of attention on the subjects only. Today, there are many portraits, fashion, and advertising campaigns created with direct influence of Irving Penn.

It has been 44 years since the images were first printed in 1974, and the photographs are as striking as when they were first published. Although the subjects are different to what we see on fashion magazines, these photographs could stand up for a new fashion editorial.