His death was confirmed by Peter MacGill, his friend and representative.
Penn's talent for picturing his subjects with compositional clarity and economy earned him the widespread admiration of Vogue readers during his long association with that magazine, beginning in 1943. It also brought him recognition in the art world; his photographs have been exhibited in museums and galleries and are prized by collectors.
His career at Vogue spanned a number of radical transformations in fashion and its depiction, but his style remained remarkably constant. Imbued with calm and decorum, his photographs often seemed intent on defying fashion. His models and portrait subjects were never seen leaping or running or turning themselves into blurs. Even the rough-and-ready members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, photographed in San Francisco in 1967, were transformed into the graphic equivalent of a Greek frieze.
Instead of offering spontaneity, Penn provided the illusion of something fixed, his gaze precisely describing the profile of a Balenciaga coat or of a Moroccan djellaba in a way that could almost mesmerize the viewer. Nothing escaped the edges of his photographs unless he commanded it. Except for a series of close-up portraits that cut his subjects' heads off at the forehead, and another, stranger suite of overripe nudes, his subjects were usually shown whole, apparently enjoying a splendid isolation from the real world.
Probably most famous for photographing fashion models and cultural figures, he seemed equally at home photographing Peruvian peasants or bunion pads. Merry A Foresta, co-organizer of a 1990 retrospective of his work at the National Portrait Gallery and what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, wrote that his pictures exhibited "the control of an art director fused with the process of an artist."
A courtly man whose gentle demeanor masked an intense perfectionism, Penn adopted the pose of a humble craftsman while helping to shape a field known for putting on airs. Although schooled in painting and design, he chose to define himself as a photographer, scraping paint off his early canvases so they could serve a more useful life as backdrops to his pictures.
He was also a refined conversationalist and a devoted husband and friend. His marriage to Lisa Fonssagrives, a leading model, an artist and his sometime collaborator, lasted 42 years, until her death at the age of 80 in 1992. Penn's photographs of Fonssagrives captured a slim woman of lofty sophistication and radiant good health and set the aesthetic standard for the elegant fashion photography of the 1940s and '50s.
Fonssagrives became a sculptor after her modeling career ended. In 1994 Penn and their son, Tom, a metal designer, arranged the printing of a book that reproduced his wife's sculpture, prints and drawings. In addition to his son, Penn is survived by his stepdaughter, Mia Fonssagrives Solow, a sculptor and jewelry designer; his younger brother, Arthur Penn, the director of films like "Bonnie and Clyde"; three grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
Penn worked for and collaborated with two of the 20th century's most inventive and influential magazine art directors, Alexey Brodovitch and Alexander Liberman. Penn was an unpaid design assistant for Brodovitch in the summers of 1937 and '38 at Harper's Bazaar, the most provocative fashion magazine of the day. But it was under Liberman, at Vogue, that Penn forged his career as a photographer.
In an introduction to Penn's book "Passage" (1991), a compilation of his career, Liberman described meeting Penn in 1941: "Here was a young American who seemed unspoiled by European mannerisms or culture. I remember he wore sneakers and no tie. I was struck by his directness and a curious unworldliness, a clarity of purpose, and a freedom of decision. What I call Penn's American instincts made him go for the essentials."
Penn was also a consummate technician, known equally for the immaculate descriptive quality of his still-life arrangements of consumer goods and for his masterly exploration of photographic materials. Not content with darkroom conventions or the standard appearance of commercial prints, he was willing to experiment. He resorted to bleaching the prints of his nudes series, eliminating skin tones and making female flesh appear harsh and unforgiving but nonetheless sexually charged.
In the 1960s Penn taught himself to print his own pictures using a turn-of-the-century process that relies on platinum instead of more conventional silver. It produces beautiful, velvety tones in the image and is among the most permanent of photographic processes, but requires time-consuming preparation and precise control in the darkroom.
Over the next 30 years Penn laboriously printed all his new work and reprinted much of his earlier work using the process, which requires mixing exotic chemicals and then hand-coating a sheet of drawing paper with it. Penn, who almost single-handedly brought the process back into popularity among photographic artists, perfected a method of coating the paper with multiple layers of metallic salts, greatly increasing depth and luminosity.
Penn's concern with the longevity of his prints was one aspect of an enduring career. Not only was he the photographer with the longest tenure in the history of Conde Nast, which publishes Vogue; he also created timeless images of fashion and celebrity, two areas of constant change. At the same time he took pains to acknowledge mortality and decay in his photographs, focusing his more personal work on cigarette butts, sidewalk detritus and, while in his 70s, on the skulls of wild animals.
In his catalog essay for a 1984 retrospective of Penn's work at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, then the museum's director of photography, wrote, "The grace, wit, and inventiveness of his pattern-making, the lively and surprising elegance of his line, and his sensitivity to the character, the idiosyncratic humors, of light make Penn's pictures, even the slighter ones, a pleasure for our eyes."
Irving Penn was born June 16, 1917, in Plainfield, N.J. His father, Harry, was a watchmaker and his mother, Sonia, a nurse. As a student at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia (now called the University of the Arts) from 1934 to 1938, Penn studied drawing, painting and graphic and industrial design. His most influential teacher was Brodovitch, a Russian emigre by way of Paris, familiar with the vanguard of European art and design.
Brodovitch worked at Harper's Bazaar in New York, traveling to Philadelphia on Saturdays to meet with his students. Penn's graphic talent impressed Brodovitch, and he chose him to be his unpaid assistant for two summers at the magazine.
After finishing school and moving to New York, Penn was a freelance designer and illustrator for Harper's Bazaar and other clients. He also bought a camera and began to photograph Manhattan storefronts and signs. In 1940 he inherited Brodovitch's position as director of advertising design for Saks Fifth Avenue, but within a year he decided to go to Mexico to be a painter.
Before leaving, Penn, at Brodovitch's suggestion, offered his position at Saks to Liberman, another Russian emigre designer. Liberman declined, but by the time Penn returned to New York in 1943, with his canvases scraped totally clean, Liberman was the art director of Vogue, and he returned the favor by offering Penn a job as his assistant.
Penn's first assignment was to supervise the design of Vogue's covers. Sketching several possible photographic scenes, he was unable to interest the staff photographers in taking them, so he took to the photo studio himself, at Liberman's suggestion. The first result was a color still-life photograph of a glove, a pocketbook and other accessories, published as the cover of Vogue on Oct. 1, 1943. Penn's photographs appeared on more than 150 Vogue covers over the next 50 years.
In World War II Penn joined the American Field Service and drove an ambulance in Italy. Arriving in Rome in 1944, he spied the artist Giorgio de Chirico carrying a shopping bag of vegetables home from the market.
"I rushed up and embraced him," Penn recalled in "Passage." "To me he was the heroic de Chirico; to him I was a total stranger, probably demented. Still, he was moved and said, 'Come home and have lunch with us.' For two days he showed me his Rome."
During those two days Penn made his first black-and-white portraits, beginning what would become a celebrated archive of the leading artists, writers and performers of the second half of the 20th century.
Returning to Vogue in 1946 as a staff photographer, Penn filled its pages with portraits of cultural figures like Edmund Wilson and W.H. Auden, still lifes of accessories, and graphic fashion photographs. His 1947 image "Twelve of the Most Photographed Models of the Period," a group portrait, includes, at its center, Lisa Fonssagrives. Fonssagrives would later appear in some of Penn's most memorable fashion images, among them "Mermaid Dress (Rochas)" and "Woman With Roses," both taken in 1950, the year she became his wife.
Those pictures were made during Penn's first assignment to photograph the Paris collections for Vogue. Using a discarded theater curtain for a backdrop and a borrowed studio filled with daylight, he choreographed some of the most spare and delicate fashion photographs yet produced, treating the clothes less as dresses to be worn than as shapes to be perceived in silhouette.
Unlike Richard Avedon, the other important new fashion photographer of the postwar period, Penn expressed himself and his subjects best through a Shaker-style restraint. In 1948, for example, he began to pose his portrait subjects by wedging them between two plain walls that met in a sharply angled vee, a scene offset by only a scrap of fraying carpet, on which subjects like Spencer Tracy, Joe Louis and the Duchess of Windsor stood, crouched or leaned.
The same year, while on assignment for Vogue in Peru, Penn ventured on his own to Cuzco and photographed the exotically dressed families who lived in the mountainous countryside, presenting them non-judgmentally.
Two decades later he expanded on these portraits during trips to Dahomey (now called Benin), to Morocco, to New Guinea and elsewhere, using a portable studio to provide a textured but seamless background. The pictures, both in color and in black and white, were featured annually in Vogue. In 1974 they were published in "Worlds in a Small Room," which seemed to emphasize the perseverance of cultural diversity.
Penn was also capable of making Western culture seem strange and fascinating. In the early 1950s he made a series of portraits of tradesmen in Paris, London and New York. Again relying on his spare studio to separate his subjects from their surroundings, he nevertheless insisted that the tradesmen wear the clothes and tools of their work: pastry chefs in white aprons and toques hold rolling pins; a fishmonger carries a fish in one hand and a rag in the other.
In 1949 and 1950, Penn produced images of female nudes as a personal project, using fleshy artists' models and focusing exclusively on their torsos. In the process of printing he attacked the light-sensitive paper with bleach and other chemicals to remove most of the skin tones, creating a rough chiaroscuro effect antithetical to then-prevailing notions of corporeal beauty. These unsettling pictures were not exhibited or published until 1980, when the Marlborough Gallery mounted a show called "Earthly Bodies." The critic Rosalind Krauss, writing in the catalog, called the nudes "a kind of privately launched and personally experienced kamikaze attack on his own public identity as a photographer of fashion."
The quest to undercut fashion's standards of perfection, and to find beauty in the disdained, overlooked or overripe, runs throughout Penn's career. In an otherwise pristine still life of food, he included a house fly, and in a 1959 close-up, he placed a beetle in a model's ear. From 1967 to 1973 he produced color essays of flowers for Vogue's Christmas issues; the blooms are all past their prime, their leaves wilted, tinged with brown and falling.
Penn acquired a reputation for perfectionism at all costs. In "Passage," Liberman recounts that when Penn was asked to take a picture of glasses falling from a serving tray, he insisted that for authenticity's sake Baccarat crystal be used. Several dozen glasses were shattered before the photograph met Penn's standard.
In the mid-1960s, fashion and fashion photography switched gears decisively. Neither his style nor his manner matched the era's spirit of sexual liberation and spontaneous, sometimes drug-assisted creativity. The public image of a fashion photographer became the anything-goes protagonist of Michelangelo Antonioni's film "Blowup," played by David Hemmings.
Penn observed the rebelliousness of the '60s with a curious eye, even taking an assignment from Look magazine to photograph the Summer of Love in San Francisco. But his stylistic confidence seemed to falter when it came to portraying the minimally structured garments and ultrathin models of the time. His photograph of the model Marisa Berenson, wearing a breast-plate-size peace sign and little else, suggests Penn's ambivalence about an era in which no clothes often seemed the preferable fashion. Not surprisingly, he concentrated on producing photographs intended to be viewed as art.
In 1975 the Museum of Modern Art presented a small exhibition of his recent work printed using the platinum process: a series of greatly magnified images of cigarette butts, transformed from gutter discards to near landmark status, and showing Penn's penchant for straying far from the politesse of his fashion and portrait pictures. The cigarette butts were followed by a series focused on other forms of sidewalk debris, presented in platinum, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977 exhibited in a show called "Street Material."
As a result of those two exhibitions, Penn's work played a significant role in the rise of photography's fortunes in the art world. Since 1987 his pictures have been exhibited at the Pace/MacGill Gallery, which now represents his work.
Passing the age of 65 without a thought of retirement, Penn devoted himself increasingly to still lifes. On his own time he constructed tabletop arrangements of bones, steel blocks and bleached animal skulls. At the same time he produced several memorable portraits for Vogue of older artists of his generation, like Willem de Kooning, Isamu Noguchi and Italo Calvino, and began contributing portraits to the fledgling Conde Nast magazine Vanity Fair. In 1985 he began to draw and paint again, after a hiatus of 43 years.
A collection of many of his most important images was acquired jointly by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1990. In 1996 Penn donated most of his archives and 130 of his prints to the Chicago Art Institute. The Morgan Library & Museum in New York acquired 67 of Penn's portraits in 2007 and exhibited them last year. Another major show opened last month at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The critic Richard Woodward, writing in 1990, argued that Penn would be best remembered for the work he did for museum walls. "The steely unity of Irving Penn's career, the severity and constructed rigor of his work can best be appreciated when he seems to break away from the dictates of fashion for magazines," he wrote. "Only then is it clear how everything he photographs - or, at least, prints - is the product of a remarkably undivided conscience. There are no breaks; only different subjects."