The prolific artist has made quite a name for herself, and while she's influenced by the work of her former father-in-law - photography icon Irving Penn - her style is very much her own.
words: Elaine Springer photos courtesy of Gabriella Imperatori-Penn
Imperatori-Penn on a shoot with St. Barth-based interior designer Karine Bruneel for Bruneel's design/housewares shop, French Indies Design. Mural by fashion designer and artist Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. Photographed and styled by Nathalie Esperabé.
A prolific architecture, interior design, fine art, and still life photographer, Gabriella Imperatori-Penn brings her Swiss-Italian sensibilities to our world through her passion for her craft. Her career thus far has been illustrious; she's been widely published in many notable and influential magazines including Vogue (American edition), Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country, Departures, Elle Decor, O, The Oprah Magazine, Martha Stewart Living and Architectural Digest. The brands that have hired her to shoot their ad campaigns are equally prestigious; among them are: Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Knoll, L’Oreal, Lancôme, and Cartier. Additionally, Imperatori-Penn's works are held in numerous private collections.
image by Gabriella Imperatori-Penn, originally published in Real Simple Magazine
creative director: Janet Froelich editor: Kendell Cronstrom
Imperatori-Penn's image above - a depiction of decorative corbels by San Francisco master wood carver Ian Agrell - was originally published in Popular Mechanics Magazine to accompany a feature by the craftsman's son, David Agrell.
photo editor: Allyson Torrisi
I initially met Gabriella at a birthday party my former yoga teacher threw for his beloved dog, Belle. When she told me her last name, I asked, hopefully and wide-eyed, if she was by any chance related to the legendary twentieth century photographer Irving Penn (known and revered for his arresting images, masterful printmaking, fashion work for Vogue, and portraits of countless icons such as authors Truman Capote and Joan Didion, actor Al Pacino, comedian Robin Williams, actresses Audrey Hepburn and Nicole Kidman, fashion designers Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Jacobs, artists Pablo Picasso and Jasper Johns, and jazz legend Miles Davis.)
Irving Penn is one of my all-time favorite photographers. So, when Gabriella informed me that Irving Penn used to be her father-in-law, my casual conversation with her turned to intrigue. And then, when she stated that she, too, was a photographer, of course I was dying to see work.
When I did, I was completely captivated by its uniqueness and excellence. It was instantly clear that although she'd been related to Irving, Gabriella Imperatori-Penn was an incredible photographer in her own right. I was an instant fan, and this woman whom I'd randomly met at a party would, over time, become a dear friend.
Recently, I visited with Gabriella in her charming West Village apartment to find out how she came to settle in NYC, what makes her tick, and the various influences that contributed to her rich portfolio of architectural, interior design, still life, and fine art photography.
the photographer at home, with Luminous Stone #12 - a limited edition gelatin silver print that's part of her Luminous + Shadow series - in the background
ES : Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview for us, Gabriella! Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you ended up in NYC?
GI-P: My pleasure, Elaine. Thank you so much for choosing me for this interview. I am Swiss-Italian and was born, raised, and educated in Zurich. In 1986, I came to NYC. I had been working with Swiss photographer Raymond Meier for two years in Switzerland, and came here for six months just to explore the photography scene. But then, I didn’t want to go back, so we moved his business to NYC. We were really young and fearless at the time, so we just did it! After working with him for two years in Manhattan, I decided to start my own business.
ES: How did you get your business established here?
GI-P: I landed my first client through the relationships I forged during those first years when I worked alongside Raymond. In addition to being an assistant, I began working as a prop stylist and started to shoot editorials. I believe I got my first agent in 1990.
"A Pile of Blankets"
styled and photographed by Gabriella Imperatori-Penn
ES: How did you meet your ex-husband, metal designer and sculptor Tom Penn?
GI-P: Elle Decor - a publication I worked for regularly - had hired me to photograph his hand-forged flatware, Karomojong. As it was a valuable sterling silver prototype, he brought it to my studio personally rather than sending it by messenger. It was love at first sight.
This image of Kuroshiwo sterling silver flatware designed by Tom Penn, photographed by Gabriella Imperatori-Penn, was originally featured in Departures Magazine.
ES: Having had the rare opportunity to spend time with the great Irving Penn, how were you influenced and inspired by his photography?
GI-P: Well, Irving Penn was always a photographic icon for me and so many others. Once I knew him, we spent pretty much every weekend together on Long Island. I would spend time with him in his lab and he would call us in to look at his work in his darkroom. Although we always talked about photography, I actually tried not to be too influenced by his work, as I wanted to keep and cultivate my own vision and style.
ES: How and why did you become interested in architectural and interior design photography ?
GI-P: I feel it was a natural progression. At the age of 16, I was flirting with the idea of becoming an architect myself. My high school boyfriend was an architect and I used to study with him. But then, I decided to become a photographer instead and began shooting still life and fashion editorials. As I got older, my focus switched from fashion to home. Soon after, I shot my first interior design project for Belgian designer Karine Bruneel in St. Barths.
"Apartment in Gustavia, St. Barths"
interior designer: Karine Bruneel for French Indies Design
styled by Nathalie Esperabé
"Restaurant Le Tamarin, St Barths" interior designer: Karine Bruneel for French Indies Design styled by Nathalie Esperabé
ES : Can you tell us about one or two architectural photo shoots that were especially memorable for you and why?
GI-P: My most memorable architectural shoot was for Swedish architect Malin Kirscher’s own house on St. Barths, because she's a wonderful person and the property is just amazing. I also adore photographing for New York-based designer John Caviness because I absolutely love his work.
Imperatori-Penn captures Malin Kirscher’s daughter in motion at the Swedish architect's home on Saint Barthélemy.
staircase at Kirscher's St. Barths home, adorned by the architect's personal collection of Japanese dolls
interior with view of the eastern Caribbean, at Malin Kirscher’s home on St. Barths
Villa Sunrise, St. Barths architecture: Malin Kirscher
interior, balcony, and cityscape in NYC's West Village
interior design: John Caviness
East Hampton home of interior designer John Caviness and partner Dan Wunderlich
ES: Could you share something about your process that you feel makes your work unique?
GI-P: Because I was a still life photographer for so many years, for me, shooting an interior and architectural image is really just like creating still life on a bigger scale. In fact, I was recently uploading a group of my images for a jury competition and realized there is a theme there... and that theme is me. Over the years, I developed my own language, but I really don’t know exactly how I arrived at that language. I think it has something to do with my spirit. All great artists have a way of infusing their work with their personal spirits.
interior of Villa Vanilla, St. Barths architecture & interior design: Malin Kirscher
Villa Sunrise, St. Barths architecture: Malin Kirscher interior design: Ronald Braso
Villa Mary, St. Barths architecture: Malin Kirscher
ES: Aside from having you photograph their projects, interior designers are also known to incorporate your fine art pieces into the spaces they create. What do you believe draws them in?
GIP: I've been told by designers that my work is timeless, which is something they love, and also that it brings a sense of peace to a space. They also admire my sense of color, or - in the case of my black & white works - the absence of it.
Flowers No. 7, Hellebores, 2014, limited edition archival pigment print
Designer John Caviness incorporated this artwork into an interior he created for a private client.
Mysterious Flower No. 3, 2017, limited edition archival pigment print
Extinct No. 2, 2019, limited edition archival pigment print from Imperatori-Penn's Extinct series
ES: So, what have you been working on lately?
GI-P: During the lockdown when we were all "still," I reverted back to my first discipline, still life, and began creating new images right here in my living room, which is lit by the gorgeous northern light that comes through my skylight. I just used objects I had around the house. One day I got involved photographing tulips and then included one of my prized possessions - a Christmas gift from my son, which is a casting of his own feet. I also created a photo that included my father’s pipe which is very dear to my heart. Another concept I have been exploring is to fill a box with objects and then create a still life from that point of view.
Still Life with Beans & Leaf No. 1, 2021, limited edition archival pigment print
ES: And what's up next for you?
GI-P: Now that more people are vaccinated, interior design projects have started up again, which of course I am very happy about! I would like to begin doing some more nudes in the near future. And I am excited to announce that my first solo show opens November 23, 2021 at Space Gallery St Barth in SoHo, NYC
Villa Sunrise, St. Barths
architect & interior designer: Malin Kirscher
Gabriella Imperatori-Penn is represented by Space Gallery St. Barth which has locations in both Saint-Barthélemy and SoHo, New York City. The gallery actively works in North America, particularly with clients in New York, Florida, Texas and California.
For more information about Gabriella Imperatori-Penn and available works (as well as sizing and pricing), contact the gallery at: spacegallerystbarth.com
To book Gabriella Imperatori-Penn for commercial assignments, contact the Thomas Treuhaft agency, NYC at: thomastreuhaft.com
Elaine Springer is a NYC-based journalist who writes about her passions: fashion, design, architecture, art, and everything that supports a natural lifestyle and well-being. She studied French literature and poetry at I'lnstitut de Francais in Villefranche-sur-Mer and completed her German studies at the Goethe Institute in Germany. She now teaches German and English as foreign languages. While living in Hamburg, Germany, Elaine managed the office of conceptual artist Michael Somoroff (whose father happened to be a contemporary of Irving Penn!) Elaine's other professional experience includes assisting the director of a French art gallery and managing the private estate of fashion designer Wolfgang Joop in New York City.
Elaine has studied and practices transcendental meditation, and through her wellness and healing practice, enables her clients to achieve harmony of mind, body, and spirit.