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Master Class: Irving Penn and the Art of the Corner Portrait

The story behind Irving Penn's iconic portrait series
Photo of Truman Capote by Irving Penn

Even if you already know the story of how the legendary Irving Penn created his iconic corner portrait series, the below video from The Photographic Eye is worth a look for inspiration alone. In the nine-minute discussion of Penn’s classic portraits of celebrities and artists wedged into a set of corner flats in his studio, Alex Kilbee of The Photographic Eye explains how Penn came up with the idea and the effect the unconventional backdrop had on his subjects, which included everyone from Salvador Dali to Marlene Dietrich.

It is Dietrich, in particular, who proved to be Penn’s greatest challenge for this series.

“When Marlene Dietrich came to be photographed [by Penn], she walked in and immediately told Penn where to put the lights, how to compose a photograph and how she was going to pose,” Kilbee notes. “‘Now look,’ Penn said to her. ‘In this experience, you will be Dietrich and I will be the photographer.’ Apparently, she wasn’t really pleased with this response, but she went with it and, of course, we ended up with this wonderful photograph.”

That anecdote is telling because it shows how much confidence Penn had gained as a photographer through this series. It evolved from a concept where Penn tried to mimic a storefront window setting for a Vogue magazine shoot.

Because Penn was still young and insecure at the time, he preferred not to visit celebrities in their homes for portraits. Instead, he concocted a similarly controlled environment in his studio with angled flats to create a corner location and a bit of carpet to tie the space together. Using only one light source to replicate the sun, Penn’s seemingly crude studio set contrasted with the glamor of the celebrities he was photographing. It’s a contrast that worked to a T.

“This unusual setting totally threw the celebrities who came into his studio. Almost like naughty children, they were forced to stand in a corner, and it helped to put Penn on an even footing with them and through the session,” Kilbee explains. “They would then be encouraged to improvise however they wished. The hope was that as they tried to accommodate their bodies and their egos in this space, they would drop their guard and reveal their true nature.”

The result is a pioneering portrait series from a master photographer that is still influential today. Watch the full video below and visit The Photographic Eye channel for more stories of master photographers. If you want some ideas on how to create your own stripped down space for portrait sessions, check out our story on how to build your own garage studio.

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