Irving Penn: Centennial Exhibition

Irving Penn (1917 – 2009) had a career that spanned more than 60 years and is arguably one of the most important and prolific fashion photographers of all time. While he might have been best known for his photographs of some of the most beautiful women in the world (including his wife: iconic fashion model Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), wearing some of the most beautiful fashions in the world, that alone did not define who he was, and beauty, for him, came in all forms.

“To me personally, photography is a way to overcome mortality.” – Irving Penn

Maybe most people don’t know that still lifes were his favorite subjects (they began and ended his long career). And while he personally hated cigarettes (in fact, his mentor and father figure Alexey Brodovitch, who was Harper’s Bazaar’s legendary art director, was never without a cigarette and he died of lung cancer), they too became favored subjects in the tumultuous 70’s, he did not glorify them. Penn was light-years ahead of his time, thoroughly inclusive and democratic, and this was exemplified by the diversity of his subjects.

Irving Penn at work

He photographed people of all shapes, sizes, classes, ages, body types, genders, races and ethnicities. With the current emphasis on diversity and inclusion in fashion, this could not be timelier. It’s also one of the many reasons why The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, “Irving Penn Centennial”, in celebration of the 100th year of Penn’s birth is so exceptional and a must-see. The show is made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art, the enterprise Holdings Endowment and The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation.

Jeff L. Rosenheim, Thomas P. Campbell, & Maria Hambourg

I attended the press preview on Monday morning during which time Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the two curators of the exhibition, Maria Hambourg, (founding curator of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and now an independent curator), and Jeff. L Rosenheim, Curator in Charge, Photographs, were on hand to make their remarks and answer questions.

Mouth for L’Oreal NY 1986

Mr. Campbell talked about Penn’s “astonishing still lifes, insightful portraiture, superb nude studies, and of course, his unparalleled work in the field of fashion”. He noted that the Met’s first solo show was in 1977 followed 25 years later in 2002, with Penn’s nude studies. This third show marks the centennial and features approximately 187 of the artist’s “finest work”. “It represents all the genres with which Penn worked and is a stunning reminder about what is so great about the medium of photography. “In short, it reveals how the true master, who knew what he wanted from his art, could use a camera and photographic materials, regardless of the circumstances, to transform this world into a far more challenging, more beautiful place”.

Jeff Rosenheim, who explained that he was fortunate to have been hired by Maria Hambourg 29 years ago, described the 180 or so “masterpieces” as a “stunning treasure trove of photographs”; “the finest surviving prints of Penn’s master body of works”. “It is truly the life work of an artist”, which will then travel to Paris in late September, go on to Germany next Spring, and to Sao Paolo in 2018.

Woman in Chicken Hat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn) 1949

He went on to say, “Penn had been long admired by curators and the press, but we were never able to honor the full achievement, and that is what this show is aiming to do”. “We know him as a great image maker; this shows what a great object maker he was”. “In this time of digital imagery, this is photography in its final form”. He went on to say, “Penn believed every print could and should be different. He made his own prints and made them all different scales. They are extraordinarily tactile and that sensitivity to the object is a story expressed in the exhibition. We focused on certain bodies of work. There are approximately 10 sections or campaigns: still lifes, fashion, portraiture, cigarettes, nudes, photographs of remote people of the world, advertisements, etc. and is loosely organized in chronological order from room to room. There is a distilled genius in all those pictures and I think you felt it. We have done two previous monographic shows and it’s an honor to present this third, most comprehensive one”.

Maria Hambourg: “If Penn were alive today he would not be here now and he would not be here tonight at the reception. He was very private, he was singularly disinterested in being in the limelight. He could have been friends with any of the celebrities he photographed, but he preferred to stay out of the picture and immerse himself in his work”.

Still Life 1948

“He was consumed by his art. He was always searching for evidence that there was something deeper than the surface. And though he worked in the fashion medium, he was never merely stylish. His pictures never stooped to the merely sensational. They are seriously arresting. They get under your skin. He was intense, he listened with an exquisite intent, and his blue eyes sparkled with intelligence. His ego was not oversized. He was modest and unprepossessing. His studio was a collaborative place. When he worked he wore jeans and sneakers like many of us artists. He was unfailingly polite and did not stand on ceremony. He never pulled rank. But his standards were high; he had exacting ways.

Balenciaga Sleeve 1950

When I asked Ms. Hambourg what her favorite sections in the exhibition were, she quickly replied, “The cigarette prints and the nudes”. When I asked Mr. Rosenheim the same question, he answered, “The fashion room with all the fabulous fashions such as the Balenciaga ‘mantle’ coat (he mentioned how you could see the chemistry and connection between Penn and his wife, the model Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn); the cigarette prints; the small trade portraits”. He also marveled at the way he “posed his subjects by touch” and softly moved my arm to illustrate what he meant.

As for me, well I found it all interesting but naturally I’d have to cite the fashion photographs. As soon as I walked into the room filled with the chic, stylized, minimal, mainly black and white photos, the world outside disappeared. I was instantly transported to another time and place: Pre-Internet, Pre-Instagram, Pre-Twitter, Pre-Snapchat, and Pre-Kardashian. It was a time when common, tacky and vulgar were not the norm.

Nude No. 105 NY 1949-50

But what is so great about the exhibit, as I have previously mentioned, is that it isn’t just about photographs of those things that are obviously and superficially beautiful. There is also a reality based, flip side to the coin. This is exemplified by his photographs of the nudes, 1949-1950. Penn disarmingly focused on “real women in real circumstances” with their ample, voluptuous flesh, rather than lithe models with perfect bodies (again, how modern is that?). Needless to say, this was not too popular or understood at the time, and this series did not gain major recognition until 2002, with an exhibition at The Met.

Enga Tribesman, New Guinea, 1970 Gelatin silver print 1984

And then there were Penn’s iconic photographs of the remote people of the world (inhabitants of Cuzco, Africa, Morocco, etc), 1967–71, wearing their indigenous costumes. Penn was not an anthropologist but an artist who traveled the globe, and Vogue’s Diana Vreeland was “delighted by his studies of costume and bodily ornamentation” which perfectly complimented the countercultural fashion trends of the late 60’s. Even Penn’s classic portraits (1948–62) were quite unlike any others; there was a directness, a realness to them. He photographed famous people such as Yves Saint Laurent, Picasso, Audrey Hepburn, Cecil Beaton, Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich, and made sure that he brought down their guard and defenses  — he was usually dressed in a simple t shirt and jeans for the occasion.

Sewer Cleaner NY 1957 Platinum-palladium Spring 1976

But I’d have to say that Small Trades, circa 1950, was for me, perhaps the most the poignant and touching. The largest single series of Penn’s career featured skilled tradespeople: window washers, butchers, knife grinders, coal miners, fishmongers, sewer cleaners, mailmen and street vendors with their tools. He effectively used the same elegant neutral backdrop and lighting as he did in his elegant fashion photography. The respect he obviously had for his proud subjects, whereby he elevated them from the common to the glorious, was evident in these photos and quite moving.

– Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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