Irving Penn: Centennial – A Celebration in Black and White and Color

Text by Mary Gregory; Photographs by Adel Gorgy

When a gift of over 187 spectacular works of art was promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they decided to have a celebration.  Luckily, the public is invited.  It’s a birthday party of sorts, through July 30th, to commemorate the gift and the life and work of Irving Penn, (1917-2009) one of photography’s greats. Irving Penn: Centennial is a sweeping view of over seventy years of output by an artist described as “the pinnacle of the art of photography for the last half of the twentieth century,” by Maria Morris Hambourg, the founding curator of The Met’s Department of Photographs, who co-organized the show with Jeff L. Rosenheim, the Met’s current Curator in Charge of the department.

Selections from the gifted works are joined by 50 from the Met’s permanent collection, about a third of the Penn prints the museum already owns.  The over 200 images display the meticulously composed and painstakingly printed creations of a bold, sensitive, ever-searching artist who possessed a master technician’s skills.

Irving Penn, Black and White Fashion with Handbag (Jean Patchett), New York, 1950, printed April 2003

Over the course of seven decades, Irving Penn created not one oeuvre, but many. For purists of the medium, he may be known for abstractions based on found objects, like cigarette butts, crushed take-out boxes and old gloves or for his innovative nude studies.  Those in fashion or publishing might know nothing of those works, but recognize his long history of work in Vogue, both glamorous couture and global ethnographic portraits.

Irving Penn, After-Dinner Games, New York, 1947, printed 1985

The exhibition follows Penn’s work chronologically. His early works from the 1930’s capture dilapidated street signs of Depression era American cities.  But even in these spare, early works, a sense of balance and volume, storytelling and mystery come through.   A series of color still-life studies from the 1940’s introduces his work with Vogue. A composition with a sliced watermelon, a bowl of grapes, and a broken loaf of bread has the precision, delicacy and symbolism of Baroque Vanitas paintings (right down to the inclusion of an insect), while “After-Dinner Games, New York” gives off a mid-century hipster vibe. The large (about 18 x 24 inch) prints are crisp, bright and dazzling.

Irving Penn, Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes, 1957, printed February 1985

Also dazzling was the crowd Penn ran with.  His portrait subjects include Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Hitchcock, Spencer Tracy, Joe Louis, Truman Capote, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dali, Richard Burton, Francis Bacon, Carson McCullers, Jean Cocteau, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to name a few.  Early pieces had sitters wedged into tightly angled sets; he cornered his subjects, literally.  Later, he found a diffusely painted stage curtain that made a perfect, neutral yet moody background.  He would carry it with him on photographic journeys around the world. That curtain is present in the exhibition, and many selfie-takers seized the opportunity to picture themselves against Penn’s classic backdrop.

Irving Penn, Girl with Tobacco on Tongue (Mary Jane Russell), New York, 1951, printed ca. 1951

Penn’s fashion work, done for Vogue magazine both broke conventions and set standards for the quality of photography in advertising.  He created some 165 covers over the years. But that work carried him beyond the realm of commercial photography in a variety of ways. For one thing, he married one of his models, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn. Her chiseled cheekbones, arched eyebrows and hourglass figure appear in several of the fashion shots.

Irving Penn, Four Guedras, Morocco, 1971, printed November 1985

Then in 1948, Vogue sent Penn on assignment to Lima, Peru. Upon finishing the shoot, he rented a vacant studio and spent some time photographing local people, many in traditional garb.  Vogue decided to publish the series the following year, opening a new chapter in Penn’s long story. He would continue to travel the world, photographing tradespeople with their tools (fishmongers, window washers, bakers, and more) from Paris to New York in a series entitled “Small Trades”, and in his “Worlds in a Small Room,” Penn portrayed warriors from New Guinea, veiled Moroccan women, and girls from Dahomey (present-day Benin).

Irving Penn, Truman Capote, New York, June 1965, printed 1968

The alchemy between Penn and Vogue was powerful.  The magazine was his playing field,” said co-curator Homburg, “but he also could progress in his art, because he had to work every day for sixty years.” Irving Penn: Centennial which Rosenheim called “the most complete and extraordinary exhibition of Irving Penn’s work anywhere in the world” offers the chance to see not just Penn’s work, but the working of his mind.

Irving Penn, Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986, printed 1992

He portrayed movie stars and peasants with equal dignity and grace.  He saw beauty and symmetry in burnt matches and crushed cigarettes.  Penn found a way to humanize both high fashion and quiet, empty spaces where the hand of the artist had just vanished.  He gave us a way to see quotidian realities behind the glamorous and the beauty in the experience of everyday.

Photo One Caption: Irving Penn, Single Oriental Poppy, New York, 1968, printed 1987