The Penn is mightier

Master photographer Irving Penn’s Vogue covers were not only beautiful, they were both brave and effective too

Irving Penn American Vogue
American Vogue from April 15, 1949. Photographer: Irving Penn

This month’s offering was created in 1949. Yet looks so fresh it could have been done yesterday.

Actually, come to think of it, it couldn’t have been made yesterday. Because the current American Vogue cover features a bland Photoshopped picture of an actress plus 49 words of ugly typography. How on earth have we travelled so far backwards in the intervening 66 years? 

Admittedly the Vogue cover you see here was shot by Irving Penn, probably the greatest studio photographer ever. And it was art directed by the brilliant Alexander Liberman, a talent so revered at Condé Nast that they employed him for over 30 years. During his time there he also championed many other wonderful photographers including Erwin Blumenfeld, Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and David Bailey.

I genuinely wonder why today’s Vogue photographers and designers ignore the groundbreaking work of their predecessors? Shameful. I’m guessing it may have something to do with research and bean-counters. But I’d love to hear the logic of making your product disappear on the news-stand by making it look exactly like everybody else’s. And I’m afraid that no amount of ‘data’ can persuade me that crap is great and vice-versa. We all have eyes don’t we?

Irving Penn certainly did. What astounding talent – to take a humble paper spike, six strips of coloured paper and create an image of such beauty. But it isn’t just beautiful. It’s also brave.

This is the cover of Vogue, remember. With no frock or model to be seen. In context, it’s a pretty shocking image. Which makes it genuinely memorable.

It’s almost certainly something that came from a collaboration between the two great men. Just like so many other fantastic Vogue covers of the time. Liberman was known to sometimes just give Penn a scribble of the proposed cover on the back of an envelope. It was then Penn’s job, quite simply, to turn it into a work of art.

I love two Penn quotes in particular: “Photographing a cake can be art” and “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it; it is in one word, effective.”

Ah yes, ‘effectiveness’. Isn’t that exactly what we’re aiming for in ads, magazine covers and any other commercial work? So how do the right-brain-dead researchers, accountants and men in suits get away with imposing their bland vision of the world on us with such depressing regularity? It only leads to boring, ignorable and yes… ineffective work. Madness.

Penn’s pictures on the other hand are based on ideas and aesthetics of the highest order. Yes he was difficult to work with. So what? He was a perfectionist. Just look at the results.

The elegant curve at the top of the paper spike perfectly reflecting the curve of the ‘G’ in the masthead. The millimetre-perfect positions of the paper strips. The rainbow order of their colours. The beautiful lighting; directional enough to give subtle form but soft enough to maintain and dramatise the flat areas of intense colour. And, of course, there’s the simple, minimal, elegantly perfect typography. Unlike today’s crude effort.

Will anyone be eulogising about the current US Vogue cover in 66 years’ time? I somehow doubt it.

Paul Belford is the founder of Paul Belford Ltd,, @belford_paul

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