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Born in 1917 in Plainfield, N.J., to Jewish parents, Penn started photographing for Vogue in 1943. When Penn died, in 2009, his obituaries hailed him as a renowned fashion and celebrity photographer, but although they shared part of his biography — that his father was a watchmaker and his mother a nurse, for example — they didn’t mention his faith. The Guardian, The Independent and The Times, all of them British papers, didn’t mention that he was Jewish, though when his brother, director Arthur Penn, died the following year, all three mentioned that he was. Perhaps Arthur Penn earned the Jewish accolade for his direction of the play “Golda,” about Golda Meir, although that play’s failure led to a messy correction to his New York Times obituary. Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t even mention that Irving Penn was Jewish.
The closest thing to an affirmative discussion of Penn’s religious identity in the press comes from a February 6, 2010, article in The Times of London by fellow Vogue photographer David Bailey, who claims to have been the only photographer permitted to use Penn’s studio. “He was modest, not pompous, and he had that dry New York Jewish humour,” Bailey writes.
A dry New York Jewish sense of humor might have been at play when Penn set his lens at an angle that ignored clouds, buildings and pedestrians, and focused instead on the discarded trash. The decision to pursue traces or shadows of human figures evokes works of many other artists, including Picasso’s near obsession with acrobats and circus performers who were not performing. Just as Picasso was fascinated by what happened during the set-up and cleanup before and after the circus performance, Penn found beauty (and menacing suggestions of a darker nature) in human traces.
Evidently, Penn’s close-ups of ground-level human trails made an impression on one viewer. Outside the gallery, someone had trudged through a recent Chicago snow dusting. But the footprints, which had been carefully choreographed, offered a more optimistic (and more environmentally sound) perspective than the litter that caught the photographer’s eye: They formed the shape of a heart.