The Met, April 24th – July 30th, 2017

For over six decades, the master photographer and printer Irving Penn created a complex body of work that transcended commercialization and pop culture into high art.  The work even today is shockingly good.  The raw power and formal brilliance of his photography became a high mark for generations.  He never slowed down, often the gift has no brakes.  This worthy retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates a hundred years of his life and work.

Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes, 1957 Platinum-palladium print, 1985 18 ⅝ × 18 ⅝ in. (47.3 × 47.3 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © The Irving Penn Foundation

It was Alexey Brodovitch, art director at Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958,  who instilled a sense of European modernism in the young intern Irving Penn.   Surrealism was paramount within this aesthetic and philosophical education.  Exposure to Surrealism’s peculiar juxtapositions, Picasso’s distortions, and Dali’s dreamscapes helped Penn “brush away the dust of tradition,” as Brodovitch put it.  It was a certain system that Penn was indoctrinated into.  Harper’s look and layouts under Bordovitch “astonish me,” Penn said, “through rhythmic switch up, angular placements, cinematic progression, flagrant love and profligate use of the bare white page, he continually surprised and engaged his readers.” Brodovitch also resembled Penn’s father, an artist-craftsman, in taste and temperament.  It was a fine connection.

Alexander Lieberman, a Richard Avedon contemporary and art director of Vogue, also had a keen sense of what was going on the continent.  It was under his wise guidance that Penn first found his footing.  Lieberman pushed him in certain directions.  Still lifes that mixed luxury and history were Penn’s first works in the magazine.   Next was a series of portraits meant to capture the mood and characters of the time.  Penn rose to the occasion. Nancy Hall Duncan explains, “Penn has established a visual arena in which aesthetics, fashion and current events could go toe to toe.”  These early works revealed a subtle tension, a precariousness of something slightly off or askew that would become a consistent theme in all of Penn’s work.

 

Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) After-Dinner Games, New York, 1947 Dye transfer print, 1985 22 ¼ × 18 ⅛ in. (56.5 × 46 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © Condé Nast

Penn would set up his camera around waist level like many who worked with a Rolleiflex, to engage the sitter not from behind the camera but above it to create a more personable relationship between artist and sitter.   He created strange, almost haphazard arrangements in his portraiture that revealed the underpinnings of the studio set up, such as the two by fours and carpeting, exposing the backdrop as just that.  Often he would corner his subjects in tight spaces creating aberrant tension, fully contrived, but effective. “Like tintypes of soldiers of Alberto Giacometti’s emaciated figures, Penn’s portraits of the late 1940’s with their barren metaphysical climate and strategic intensities, seem to ask of the sitter’s their very essence.”

Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) Truman Capote, New York, 1948 Platinum-palladium print, 1968 15 7/8 × 15 3/8 in. (40.3 × 39.1 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1986 © The Irving Penn Foundation Irving

His most famous early portrait was Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrieves – Penn), was shot in a rented top floor studio of a photographic school in Paris in September 1950.  Here it was that he first realized the magical light of Paris. Penn used a discarded curtain (that is in the exhibition) as a simple gray backdrop that produced a soft sculptural effect.  He continued to use this backdrop throughout his career.  He married Fonssagrieves, who became a muse for him in many ways, and consequentially one of the first supermodels.

Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950 Platinum-palladium print, 1980 19 ⅞ × 19 ¾ in. (50.5 × 50.2 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © Condé Nast Irving

A sense of dignity was equally bestowed to all his subjects.  Penn’s work in Cusco and Africa show that Family of Man sensibility where all of us are in fact legends.  The camera then was almost “like a witch doctor” with the man behind it a subject of respect or a even sorcerer.  But I am sure Penn deflected this as much as possible to get the best out of his foreign subjects around the world.

Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) Cuzco Children, 1948 Platinum-palladium print, 1968 19 ½ × 19 ⅞ in. (49.5 × 50.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © Condé Nast

Penn worked quietly, he was a self-contained person and who was after clarity. Penn said, the “photographic process for me is primarily simplification and elimination.”  He was not in awe of his subjects. “When Marlene Dietrich came to pose she immediately told Penn just where to put the light. ‘Now look,’ Penn countered, ‘in this experience you be Dietrich and I’ll be the photographer.”

Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1948 Gelatin silver print, 2000 10 × 8 1/8 in. (25.4 × 20.6 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © The Irving Penn Foundation

What I love about Irving Penn is that even while nestled into commercial photography at the highest level, he worked against that grain almost his entire career.  He was and still is a rebel.  For Penn, it was definitely not about some surface idea of what we have come to associate with the beautiful.  It was beyond that.  Dying flowers, stubbed out cigarettes, fleshy Titian like models show a keen awareness and respect for life and beauty and it’s tightrope in time.   There was a naturalness even in one of the most contrived atmosphere – studio photography – that was always finely ingrained in the work.  And naturalness is always admirable.

Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) Cigarette No. 37, New York, 1972 Platinum-palladium print, 1975 23 ½ × 17 ⅜ in. (59.7 × 44.1 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © The Irving Penn Foundation