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Photography's Free Radical:
Irving Penn Centennial at The Met

Irving Penn, Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1948. (© The Irving Penn Foundation)

Written by Rebecca Johnson

Alexander Liberman, the longtime Vogue art director who first encouraged Irving Penn to pick up a camera, had a name for the pictures the revolutionary photographer would create: he called them “stoppers.” As in, they stopped you in your tracks, delivering a pleasurable, palpable shock to the eye and the soul. Whether his subject happened to be a stubbed-out cigarette or a couture dress, Penn’s graphic, innovative, and utterly arresting portraits and studies of flowers and food forever altered traditional notions of fashion and beauty, as seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current retrospective, which arrives on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Penn favored twin-lens Rolleiflex cameras. He acquired this one in 1964, and used it along with similar models for portrait sittings for the next four decades. (Photo by Jonathan Hökklo)

The son of a New Jersey watchmaker, Irving Penn dreamed of becoming a painter—he would channel that inherited aptitude for precision into the prints he fastidiously made, and train that visionary eye on his bold, alluring compositions of flowers, food, and commonplace objects. Penn’s first cover of Vogue arrived in 1943 and, with 164 more covers after, he would change the face of the magazine, capturing not only the essence of the clothes but the distinct character of the models who wore them. (Eventually he would marry one of his most frequent and most stunning subjects and collaborators, the supermodel and sculptor Lisa Fonssagrives.)

I myself have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument that it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.
Irving Penn
First used by Penn in Paris in 1950, this old theater curtain backdrop—complete with soft stains and frayed edges—became a distinctive feature and foil for the quiet dramas of some of his most famous photographs. (Installation photographs by Jonathan Hökklo)
Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950. (© Condé Nast)

From an early age, Penn made incisive, revelatory portraits of some of the most iconic artists of his century, often inelegant and minimal close-up—Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Didion, Langston Hughes, Igor Stravinsky, Georgia O’Keeffe. For six decades he used the same backdrop—a recycled theatrical curtain painted with diffused clouds—and traveled the world.

Some of his most trenchant photographs were made in his portable studio, to which he invited indigenous peoples of Cuzco, Peru; and locals in their own clothes in Morocco, New Guinea, and Dahomey (Benin). Penn died at the age of 92 in 2009; that year Vogue published his final commission for the magazine, a photograph of sliced bananas—simple in subject, astonishing in execution. “I certainly had an intellectual crush on him,” Anna Wintour once confessed. Penn, she said, “changed the way we saw the world, and our perception of what is beautiful.”

Balenciaga Sleeve (Régine Debrise), Paris, 1950. (© The Irving Penn Foundation)
I can get obsessed by anything if I look at it long enough. That’s the curse of being a photographer. Irving Penn
Truman Capote, New York, 1948. “By portraying some of his subjects between walls or jamming them up against a table, as if to squeeze out the inner self, Penn developed a concentrated gaze into the core of human nature, and at the same time created some of the most existential works of this century,” journalist Jeffrey Slonim once observed. (© The Irving Penn Foundation)
Large Sleeve (Sunny Harnett), New York, 1951 (© The Irving Penn Foundation)

Irving Penn: Centennial is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 30th. The exhibition will travel to Paris (at the Grand Palais, September 2017 through January 2018), and subsequently to Berlin and São Paulo.

Theatre Accident, New York, 1947. Penn's still lifes are typically as structured as monuments, writes co-curator Maria Morris Hambourg in the exhibition catalogue. The elements in his images fit together so decisively that they call to mind the interconnecting pieces of those lockbox puzzles that slide into place only after painstaking manipulation. (© The Irving Penn Foundation)

Photography's Free Radical: Irving Penn Centennial at The Met

Photography's Free Radical:
Irving Penn Centennial at The Met

Irving Penn, Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1948. (© The Irving Penn Foundation)

Written by Rebecca Johnson

Alexander Liberman, the longtime Vogue art director who first encouraged Irving Penn to pick up a camera, had a name for the pictures the revolutionary photographer would create: he called them “stoppers.” As in, they stopped you in your tracks, delivering a pleasurable, palpable shock to the eye and the soul. Whether his subject happened to be a stubbed-out cigarette or a couture dress, Penn’s graphic, innovative, and utterly arresting portraits and studies of flowers and food forever altered traditional notions of fashion and beauty, as seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current retrospective, which arrives on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Penn favored twin-lens Rolleiflex cameras. He acquired this one in 1964, and used it along with similar models for portrait sittings for the next four decades. (Photo by Jonathan Hökklo)

The son of a New Jersey watchmaker, Irving Penn dreamed of becoming a painter—he would channel that inherited aptitude for precision into the prints he fastidiously made, and train that visionary eye on his bold, alluring compositions of flowers, food, and commonplace objects. Penn’s first cover of Vogue arrived in 1943 and, with 164 more covers after, he would change the face of the magazine, capturing not only the essence of the clothes but the distinct character of the models who wore them. (Eventually he would marry one of his most frequent and most stunning subjects and collaborators, the supermodel and sculptor Lisa Fonssagrives.)

I myself have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument that it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.
Irving Penn
First used by Penn in Paris in 1950, this old theater curtain backdrop—complete with soft stains and frayed edges—became a distinctive feature and foil for the quiet dramas of some of his most famous photographs. (Installation photographs by Jonathan Hökklo)
Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950. (© Condé Nast)

From an early age, Penn made incisive, revelatory portraits of some of the most iconic artists of his century, often inelegant and minimal close-up—Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Didion, Langston Hughes, Igor Stravinsky, Georgia O’Keeffe. For six decades he used the same backdrop—a recycled theatrical curtain painted with diffused clouds—and traveled the world.

Some of his most trenchant photographs were made in his portable studio, to which he invited indigenous peoples of Cuzco, Peru; and locals in their own clothes in Morocco, New Guinea, and Dahomey (Benin). Penn died at the age of 92 in 2009; that year Vogue published his final commission for the magazine, a photograph of sliced bananas—simple in subject, astonishing in execution. “I certainly had an intellectual crush on him,” Anna Wintour once confessed. Penn, she said, “changed the way we saw the world, and our perception of what is beautiful.”

Balenciaga Sleeve (Régine Debrise), Paris, 1950. (© The Irving Penn Foundation)
I can get obsessed by anything if I look at it long enough. That’s the curse of being a photographer. Irving Penn
Truman Capote, New York, 1948. “By portraying some of his subjects between walls or jamming them up against a table, as if to squeeze out the inner self, Penn developed a concentrated gaze into the core of human nature, and at the same time created some of the most existential works of this century,” journalist Jeffrey Slonim once observed. (© The Irving Penn Foundation)
Large Sleeve (Sunny Harnett), New York, 1951 (© The Irving Penn Foundation)

Irving Penn: Centennial is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 30th. The exhibition will travel to Paris (at the Grand Palais, September 2017 through January 2018), and subsequently to Berlin and São Paulo.

Theatre Accident, New York, 1947. Penn's still lifes are typically as structured as monuments, writes co-curator Maria Morris Hambourg in the exhibition catalogue. The elements in his images fit together so decisively that they call to mind the interconnecting pieces of those lockbox puzzles that slide into place only after painstaking manipulation. (© The Irving Penn Foundation)