Photography's Free Radical:
Irving Penn Centennial at The Met
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.
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.
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.”
I can get obsessed by anything if I look at it long enough. That’s the curse of being a photographer. Irving Penn
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.