Owning the camera
A momentous show of Irving Penn’s work in all major aspects organized by Jeff L. Rosenheim for the first time at the Met, which has long collected and twice before shown the striking and remarkable photography of a man who was modest in manner (he opened the door to a traveler from Europe and it took half an hour before the visitor realized he was talking to the great artist he had come a long way to see, and not the janitor) but tremendous in personal accomplishment, since he always singlemindedly pursued his own vision regardless of commercial assignments, which luckily were overseen at the magazine he joined early on by a sympathetic enabler who let him have free rein to pursue a style which was unique in every area, from fashion images which perfectly reflected the line, style and cut of the designers in the pose and poise of the model, to nudes which so powerfully found the beauty of nature’s contours and lineal graphics that the eroticism was often buried without trace, partly because Penn’s eye always sent him far beyond the standard reflex of “oh how ugly” at subjects such as pendulous breasts and fat or smashed cigarette butts to show their monumental stature and design integrity and as well their transcendent emotional significance in the lives of his subjects and the viewer, so at least one of the nudes hung in the gallery devoted to that work here was impossible to work out without asking the help of the curator and author of the essay on nudes in the huge and very interesting catalogue, Maria Morris Hambourg, who explained to us that what we were unsure was the pubic area, since it seemed to have hair on it but be far too close to the flopping breasts, was in fact her neck and its small creases, which fact she demonstrated by pulling her own neck flesh into slight creases, though in truth there is rarely anything hard to fathom in Penn’s famous photographs except how he managed to achieve the extraordinary intensity and impact of his images which could even excel, for example, the striking body paint effects of the unfettered natives of New Guinea, and though you might hope that a clue to how he achieved it all might be contained in the few short video showing Penn at work overseas, amid women subjects covered scalp to toe in black shrouds like apparitions from a threatening dream, in fact the film probably won’t be of much help, as the assistants bustling about adjusting garment folds and fixing huge light reflectors seem to have as little to do as Penn’s businesslike face with the secret of his ability to transform our view of the many famous faces he shot into something we have never seen before in all their news and publicity shots, a humanity and a sensitivity and vulnerability which brings them down to earth as fellow human beings, whether the fragile soul of Rachel Carson behind the stern determination she had to finish her book exposing the ravages of DDT before she died of cancer, or the robust muscularity of a tired Truman Capote, or a cheerful Tom Wolfe shrunk and spare inside his crumpled suit with florid handkerchief flowering from his breast pocket, in a room hung here with an unending series of portraits of great names which are likely to transform the images of each held hitherto in one’s mind into something utterly different and more visibly real.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art will present a major retrospective of the photographs of Irving Penn to mark the centennial of the artist’s birth. Over the course of his nearly 70-year career, Irving Penn (1917–2009) mastered a pared-down aesthetic of studio photography that is distinguished for its meticulous attention to composition, nuance, and detail. Opening April 24, 2017, Irving Penn: Centennial will be the most comprehensive exhibition to date of the work of the great American photographer.
The exhibition follows the 2015 announcement of the landmark promised gift from The Irving Penn Foundation to The Met of more than 150 photographs by Penn, representing every period of the artist’s dynamic career with the camera. The gift will form the core of the exhibition, which will feature more than 200 photographs by Penn, including iconic fashion studies of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, the artist’s wife; exquisite still-lifes; Quechua children in Cuzco, Peru; portraits of urban laborers; female nudes; tribesmen in New Guinea; and color flower studies. The artist’s beloved portraits of cultural figures from Truman Capote, Picasso, and Colette to Ingmar Bergman and Issey Miyake will also be featured. Rounding out the exhibition will be photographs by Penn that entered The Met collection prior to the promised gift.