The most evident thing about Irving Penn one sees in the exhibition of his work opening at today the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the photographer's complete passion for humanity. His obsession transcended the human form and permeated everything he created, from still-lifes to his painstaking study of discarded cigarette butts, leaving every photograph with the lingering sensation of the people in, and around, the images.
Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn in Rochas Mermaid Dress, by Irving PennThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
Penn is best known for the six decades he spent shooting for American Vogue. His fastidious approach and studied meticulousness towards composition and detail produced some of the most iconic fashion images and portraits in modern popular culture. Most famous are his images of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, the former dancer-turned-model as well as the artist's wife, and portraits of luminaries like Audrey Hepburn, Picasso and Truman Capote—work which came to cement his position as one of the most influential photographers of his time.
Historically, though, most are unaware of Penn’s full body of work. “We don’t really have a good understanding of Penn’s point of view beyond his portraits and his work at Vogue,” says Jeff Rosenheim, who co-curated the exhibition along with Maria Morris-Hamburg. “What we see is that it was not just images he was after, it was not just ink on paper, he was also a great printmaker and he wanted to show a physical object that would be as extraordinary as the image. We see how beautiful and large these prints are, how exquisitely made and balanced they are, and how luscious and sensuous are the objects.”
The exhibition is expansive, covering the breadth of the photographer’s 70 years of work. It includes his series on street signs, American South and Mexico, New Guinea and Morocco, indigenous people of Peru, fashion and style, Small Trades portraits of urban laborers, the famed cigarette still lifes, and an exhaustive selection of portraits of cultural icons.
“Not only are the prints exhibited an extraordinary collection of images, but the catalog is a masterpiece both in terms of reproduction quality and scholarship,” says Ivan Shaw, Corporate Photography Director, Condé Nast Editions.
Penn’s observation of humanity occurred in broad strokes and included a vast array of people from all corners of society. He did this at a time when the world was still a big place and when different cultures, subcultures and races were—in most cases—abstract concepts.“Through his ethnographic studies, I believe Penn was hoping to gain an understanding of the complexity of the human condition and make a record of it,” adds Shaw. “Part of Penn's brilliance was his ability to not only engage with such an enormous topic but to then convey his understanding, through photography, in an entirely unique and powerful way.”
Cuzco Children, by Irving PennThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
Penn’s exploration of Cuzco Indians from Peru, shot in 1948, or veiled Moroccan women, shot in 1971, and even his images of a fishmonger or sewer cleaner from 1951 and 1950, showed this unprejudiced curiosity towards human beings. As a viewer, these images evict a sense of what it may have felt like to encounter these people for the first time through his photographs. It was a time without the internet, discovery was still real, and you are acutely reminded of this through his pictures.
From Cigarette series, by Irving Penn The Metropolitan Museum of Art
In his study of Cigarettes—a mesmerizing series which were publicly met with much confusion at the time—Penn applied the same rigorous study to discarded cigarette butts as he did to his portraits and fashion images. They confronted the viewer to ask the question: why? Why place such focus on an object so unworthy of attention?
For Penn, the butts came to signify the major social and political issues of the 1960’s and 1970’s including the race riots, the war in Vietnam, the newly-minted war on tobacco, and a New York City that was disheveled, riddled with crime and on the verge of bankruptcy. They became the communication of a country at odds with itself ruled by an ineffective government.
What is palpable in this series is that through their zoomed-in, blown up size you are able to sense the relationship to the people who once held these discarded objects, indicative of Penn’s consistent asking of the question, “What is the role of the camera in our society?” which he sought to answer picture after picture.
"This exhibition came from a dream every curator which is to look deep into a single artist’s work, and I spent a year with my co-curator sifting through thousands and thousands of prints to find meaning," explains Rosenheim. "What people will walk away is that he was one the greatest artists in any medium of the 20th century and we don’t know him, and now we hope to know him better.”
Irving Penn: Centennial opens today, April 24, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and runs through July 30.