(NEW YORK, NY) – In an exhibition marking the centennial of the birth of Irving Penn (1917-2009), a the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the comprehensive retrospective of the great American photographer displays his pared down aesthetic studio photography that is distinguished for its meticulous attention to composition, nuance and detail.
As Penn stated, “I myself have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument that it is, part Stradivarius and part scalpel.”
The exhibition followed 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 Penn’s dynamic career with the camera.
Penn simply considered himself a contemporary link in the chain of art history encompassing the world’s many cultures. He returned from Mexico at the end of 1942 and spent the following year with Vogue, in his own words, as a “professional photographer.” He remained with Vogue for six decades.
By 1948, working with Vogue art director Alex Lieberman, he made a name for himself with his photographic portraits. Between 1943 and 2004, Penn produced 165 cover page photographs for Vogue, which is the most ever to date.
Yes, the Vogue photographs are wonderful, but you’ll see a collection of still life portraits, including Spencer Tracy, Audrey Hepburn, Peter Ustinov, Truman Capote, Joe Louis, and many more. Penn had an innate ability to capture not only the subject, but what the subject stood for, or was well known for, in popular culture.
In addition to the Vogue photographs and those of celebrities, there is a particularly captivating series of photographs on “Small Trades,” which actually was the largest single collection of photographs in his career. They capture various participants in so-called small trades, such as bakers and fishmongers, and display a gritty, yet very honest, portrayal of a period in time.
Penn captured them using the same type of daylight studio, the same neutral backdrop, and the same lighting as he did with fashion models and the cultural elite. There is also a collection of nudes with all their bumps and wrinkles as Penn delighted in simple and voluptuous flesh.
In addition, Penn despised cigarettes, yet collected a series of photos on cigarette butts.
If you ever get a chance to attend this retrospective, whenever the Met reschedules one, you’ll see photography arguably at its best. Hard to describe in words and arty chit chat, but easy to visually appreciate and enjoy.