While his colleagues worked with elegant cars, palatial settings, and other clutter, Penn did away with all superfluous props. Only the essential elements remained: the person, the clothes, and the light that made the best of both. The background was a neutral grey or white; when grey, it sometimes consisted of an old tarpaulin, which only enhanced clothes and accessories. This unencumbered setting showed that the pictures were taken not in anything resembling reality but in a studio. Penn once said that he knew nothing about chandeliers or wallpaper.
Penn’s purist attitude pioneered a new approach to studio photography. He applied the same tactic to pictures of cultural celebrities, capturing the personalities of people like Truman Capote, Jean Cocteau, Anaïs Nin, Jasper Johns, and Carson McCullers. These images were not primarily portraits; instead, Penn found a whole world in each individual. The pictures he took in the specially constructed tent that he took on his trips to Africa and Asia are especially intriguing. The photographic collection Worlds in a Small Room was universally admired.
In the 1960s, working for Look magazine, Penn made a series of photographs describing American subcultures, including a memorable group on Hell’s Angels in San Francisco-one of the most unnerving photo sessions he ever did, he says. He has also photographed nudes, but unlike most other photographers he has chosen large, even obese models, producing different revelations of the shapes of the human body. In addition to taking insightful photographs, Penn has researched the history of photography and revived the platinotype, in which the paper is prepared with platinum or palladium salts instead of silver, heightening the middle range of the grey scale.
Penn’s photographs have been shown in two solo exhibitions at the Moderna Museet. Both exhibitions drew huge audiences, proving that his sophisticated and personal images appeal to a wide public. In connection with the most recent of these, Penn donated 100 photographs to the museum in memory of his Swedish-born wife, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn. Among these images was the picture of Ingmar Bergman, a formidable portrait of the director’s world and personality.