NEW YORK — The mastery of Irving Penn will soon be a matter of great dissection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Beyond the fashion photography that Penn spent decades perfecting at Vogue, “Irving Penn: Centennial” will showcase portraits of cultural forces like Salvador Dalí as well as lesser-known laborers. There will also be a range of nudes, “Morandi” still life photos, street signs, underprivileged Peruvians, florals and cigarette butts when the show opens to the public on April 24. Penn died in 2009 at the age of 92.
In the midst of a final punch list Friday morning, Jeff L. Rosenheim, the Joyce Frank Menschel curator in charge of the Department of Photographs at The Met, said of Penn’s diversity, “He was equally, awesomely inspired by the portrait, by the nude, by the still life, by the fashion picture, because it provided a problem that had to be solved right there. He couldn’t go back — like a painter who can always go back and repaint something. A photographer has to solve the problem there and then. It’s not like digital today where you can make it up.”
Penn’s Who’s Who of portraiture is storied and steep — Colette, Yves Saint Laurent, Audrey Hepburn, Elsa Schiaparelli, Francis Bacon, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Spencer Tracy, Dalí, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock and (a boyish looking) Tom Wolfe among them. His knack for putting subjects at ease is clear in the shot of boxer Joe Louis shirtless and looking a little slack. And his perseverance took many forms. After Penn’s assistant climbed over a locked gate at Pablo Picasso’s house in Cannes, France, (mistakenly thinking no one was home) the artist gave Penn 10 minutes to fire away. Earlier Picasso had been pretending not to be there.
Met visitors will wander past the backdrop made from an old theater curtain found in Paris and faintly painted with gray clouds that Penn carried and used for 50-plus years. Rosenheim said, “When he photographed T.S. Eliot, he was not afraid to show its edge. That’s such a dramatic decision and so beautifully thought out. He wants perfection, but he also wants to show that an image is an image. It’s artificial. He just did it all.”
Another gallery features recently found video footage of Penn goodnaturedly rearranging scads of people in Morocco. Images from three of the 10 trips that were featured in his 1974 book “Worlds in a Small Room” will also be on view.
Motivated partially by his experience as an ambulance driver in Italy and India during World War II, Penn wanted to take his studio to the world, traveling to remote locales for Vogue from 1967 to 1971. Former Vogue editor in chief Diana Vreeland appreciated how Penn’s studies of costume and body adornment provided the magazine with real material to complement the countercultural fashion trends of the late 1960s. His alliance with Vogue was the gateway for these remote travels and led to his “Global Citizens” series.
Rosenheim said, “They should be seen within the context that he is a fashion photographer but he is much more. Also, in the Sixties the language of the world changed so it’s the sexual revolution, the era of the Vietnam War, globalization, racial inequality, post-Cuba independence and all the African countries were seeking independence. The world was in the news after the isolationist Fifties.”
Penn was inclined to spend a week at most in foreign locales, and a non-Vogue trip to Cuzco, Peru in the Forties resulted in thousands of photos in a matter of days. As one of the show’s labels indicated, his tent also served as “neutral area” for both the individuals and himself. “But in this limbo, there was for us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me, and often, I could tell a moving experience for the subjects themselves, who without words — by only their stance and their concentration — were able to say much that spanned the gulf between our different worlds,” Penn once said.
Before he bought his first Rolleiflex, the New Jersey native studied design under Alexey Brodovitch at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, and started out in New York a graphic artist. In 1941, he packed up for Mexico to spend a year dedicated to painting, but disappointed with the end result, he supposedly destroyed them. He kept the photographs from the trip, though, said Rosenheim who curated the exhibition with Mariam Morris Hambourg, independent curator and founding curator of The Met’s Department of Photographs.
Back in New York, Penn was hired by Vogue’s Alexander Liberman, embarking on a lifelong alliance with Condé Nast. Penn’s first cover appeared in October 1943. A bevy of Vogue assignments are on view at The Met including nine framed color covers from the Fifties, and the 1947 “Modern Family – The Broken Pitcher,” a pajamas-wearing man slouched against a modern art-laden table, while an evening gown-clad woman reads a book nearby as a young girl smashes a pitcher. While his model wife Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn doubled as his muse, Penn also photographed some of her peers like Jean Patchett, Mary Jane Russell and Tatiana du Plessix, Liberman’s wife.
Interestingly, the gallery of Penn’s nudes includes several photos of non-modellike physiques. His egalitarian eye can also be seen in “Small Trades” — portraits of a fishmonger, dock worker, coal man, window washer, butcher, mailman, sewer cleaner and other laborers shot in 1950 and 1951. The Met’s show also draws attention to the symmetry of his still life photos and florals, two genres Penn returned to again and again. The 1947 “Salad Ingredients” is one of the earlier ones in the show and the 2006 “Silver Dawn” peony is the latest Penn photo featured.
Once through the gallery that houses platinum-palladium prints of cigarette butts retrieved from New York sidewalks by his assistant and then the images from New Guinea, Morocco and Africa, museumgoers will find photos of a Hells Angels motorcycle rider, Naomi Sims enrobed in a scarf, Marisa Berenson as an Ungaro Bride Body Sculpture, Nicole Kidman in Chanel couture, a 1988 shot of Issey Miyake (whom Penn worked with on projects later in life). Equally adept in many mediums — drawing and painting among them — Penn routinely set up photos with his own drawings, Rosenheim said. With his meticulous notes and working documents, Rosenheim described him as “a careful manager of his own work” who handled the better part of his prints.
“He was one of those thought leaders of the day who had kind of seen it all. His work was physically so beautiful. I knew him as an image maker but I didn’t know him as an object maker. He wanted his prints to be these extraordinary objects,” Rosenheim said.
Walking towards a 1950 photograph of Penn’s wife that was printed in 1988, Rosenheim said, “This is one of the most beautiful prints that I’ve seen in the medium of photography. There’s this exquisite balance — elegance and form — whether it’s a cigarette butt or a Balenciaga Mantel coat. His images are perfectly orchestrated but so are his prints. This is a tour de force of photographic printmaking. If there is any question about the power of photographic objects to communicate poetically, this show is a perfect opportunity to understand that.”