Friday, September 8, 2017

Irving Penn: Centennial at the Met

The Tarot Reader (Bridget Tichenor
and Jean Patchett) (1949)
If memory serves, my introduction to Irving Penn's fashion photographs was an exhibit at the New York Public Library in the mid-1990s. Penn's couture photographs are, without question, stunning. Their creativity draws the viewer in, making the photo about more than just the clothes. It's no wonder they've stood the test of time.

But there's much more to Penn's work. The recent Irving Penn: Centennial exhibit at the Met gave viewers a sense of his interests outside the world of couture.

Penn traveled the globe for his work with Vogue. He often extended his time on location to shoot subjects that caught his attention. His Cuzco series of portraits is a prime example. After finishing a 1948 pre-Christmas fashion shoot in Lima, Penn headed for Cuzco, where he rented a studio from a local photographer.

Mother and Posing Daughter, Cuzco (1948)
Residents of nearby villages often traveled to Cuzco during the holiday season to enjoy the festivities and get their annual family portraits taken. Imagine their surprise and, perhaps, concern when a random American photographer greeted them when they entered the studio. (Their concerns were likely assuaged by the fact that this photographer paid them to take their pictures.)

I suspect the portraits were different from those already hanging in the family homes. In her article about the exhibit for the New York Times, Roberta Smith suggested this child's pointing finger was a reference to Goya's painting of The Duchess of Alba. I love that. But what I love even more is the expression on the child's face. Her attitude is more royal than that of the Duchess herself.

Sewer cleaner, New York (1950)
The Cuzco experience led Penn to his Small Trades series of photos from London and New York. Again, this series--Penn's largest--was enabled by a shoot he did for Vogue in Paris. The photos remind me of the old nursery rhyme about the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker as Penn captured tradesman from all walks of life.

Penn's subjects were shot in the manner he favored for his couture and celebrity shots -- in a daylight studio with a neutral backdrop. He captured them dressed as they would be for a day at work with the tools of their trade close at hand. The occupations include fishmonger, tree pruner, knife grinder, and cucumber seller. (That's a niche business if I ever heard of one.)  I chose to share his photo of a sewer cleaner because it's got to be one of the world's most unappreciated professions -- plus his tools are very cool. Interestingly, Vogue published these photos in the pages of its magazine both domestically and abroad.

Tribesman with Nose Disc,
New Guinea (1970)
Vogue was also instrumental in helping Penn achieve his dream of traveling to the Pacific and Africa. From 1967 to 1971, Penn made ten trips to the region with supermodel Lisa Fonssagrives--now Mrs. Irving Penn--by his side. He used a simple tent as his onsite studio.

I would love to know how Penn was able to gain the trust of these people to take their photographs.The exhibit included some wonderful videos of him with his subjects, which included women swathed from head to toe in their burkas.

Penn with Moroccan subjects
Penn said of the experience, "The studio became, for each of us, a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, as I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives, it was not my home, as I had obviously come from elsewhere, from far away. 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."

Photographs from Penn's trips to the region are collected in his World without Rooms.

Irving Penn: Centennial was a treat from start to finish. His photographs reveal the beauty in ordinary people. And, of course, the beauty in those supermodels.

If all this talk of Irving Penn has made you crave some great fashion, check out The Collection on Amazon. The show is set in a Parisian fashion house after WWII and features some incredible couture -- and photographs. And from Oct. 18-Jan. 14, the Dali in St. Petersburg will host a Dali & Schiaparelli exhibit. Stay tuned for a report on that show!

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