Category Archives: Irving Penn

Corner Portraits – Irving Penn

Kozloff draws a distinction between the ‘detached yet stringent’ portraiture of August Sander (Kozloff, 2007, p:191 ) who was discussed in Part 1 and the portraits of indigenous peoples shot by Penn for Vogue magazine between 1950 and 1970.

Penn started ou by taking the portraits in local dress and occasionally masks set against a faded backdrop from a commercial studio.  However this soon evolved to using a backdrop with a ‘vague, shifting tonality'(ibid. p192) as explored in the course test for Part two and Exercise 2.4 Different Subject, same background.  By taking these people out of their natural environment he created a sort of theatrical ‘stage’ to display them on to ‘set off their picturesque shabbiness to graphic effect’ (ibid. p.192).

Many of the portraits have something quite incongruous and amusing about them while at the same time being stark and austere.

This theme can be traced back to his earlier work, for example Corner Portraits (1948).  Instead of a plain, dingy backdrop cloth Penn here placed two plain walls and an acute angle to create an effect of a ‘corner of a room’.  Again there are no props or ecourtrements, just the subject and the bare corner backdrop.

The portraits are fascinating for the way in which each subject makes the space his/her own in some way and engages with it differently.  Some lean against it defiantly separate.  Lots of others appear to quite literally back themselves into a corner, contorting their limbs and bodies into the recess of the corner.  We can’t help but read meanings into this even though we know nothing of the subjects: shy, timid, gregarious or whatever, based on little more than their clothing and how they place themselves in a corner before the unforgiving lens of the photographer.

Penn leaves us in no doubt that the portrait photographer can gain a lot from placing his subjects in a simple environment which they can relate to in their own way.  When this relationship is established, the background becomes an amplifier, or reflector for the subject’s personality, revealing more than just the face ever could.



Kozloff, M. (2007) The theatre of the face: Portrait photography since 1900. London: Phaidon Press.