Exhibition Dates: April 24–July 30, 2017
Exhibition Location: The Met Fifth Avenue, Gallery 199
Irving Penn is one of the most important modern masters of photography and has inspired future photographers of all genres with his portraits, still lifes and fashion pictures. He is most famously known for having worked as a magazine photographer for Vogue and created numerous personal projects. His work forms significant parts of the world’s most renowned public and private photography collections.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art will present a major retrospective of the photographs of Irving Penn to mark the centennial of the artist’s birth. Over the course of his nearly 70-year career, Mr. Penn (1917–2009) mastered a pared-down aesthetic of studio photography that is distinguished for its meticulous attention to composition, nuance, and detail. Opening April 24, 2017, Irving Penn: Centennial will be the most comprehensive exhibition to date of the work of the great American photographer.
The exhibition follows the 2015 announcement of the landmark promised gift from The Irving Penn Foundation to The Met of more than 150 photographs by Penn, representing every period of the artist’s dynamic career with the camera. The gift will form the core of the exhibition, which will feature more than 200 photographs by Penn, including iconic fashion studies of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, the artist’s wife; exquisite still-lifes; Quechua children in Cuzco, Peru; portraits of urban laborers; female nudes; tribesmen in New Guinea; and color flower studies. The artist’s beloved portraits of cultural figures from Truman Capote, Pablo Picasso, and Colette to Ingmar Bergman and Issey Miyake will also be featured. Rounding out the exhibition will be photographs by Penn that entered The Met collection prior to the promised gift.
The exhibition is organized by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in Charge of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs, and Maria Morris Hambourg, an independent curator and a former Met colleague who founded the department.
Irving Penn was born June 16, 1917, in Plainfield, N.J. Educated in public schools, he attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Art from 1934 to 1938, where Alexey Brodovitch (a Russian-born photographer, designer and instructor who is most famous for his art direction of fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958) taught him advertising design. While training for a career as an art director, Penn worked the last two summers for Harper’s Bazaar magazine as an office boy and apprentice artist, sketching shoes. At this time he had no thought of becoming a photographer.
His first job on graduating in 1938 was the art director of the Junior League magazine, later he worked in the same capacity for Saks Fifth Avenue department store. At the age of 25, he quit his job and used his small savings to go to Mexico, where he painted a full year before he convinced himself he would never be more than a mediocre painter.
Returning to New York, he won an audience with Alexander Liberman, art director of Vogue magazine, who hired Penn as his assistant, specifically to suggest photographic covers for Vogue. The staff photographers didn’t think much of his ideas, but Liberman did and asked Penn to take the pictures himself. Using a borrowed camera, and drawing on his art background and experience, Penn arranged a still life consisting of a big brown leather bag, beige scarf and gloves, lemons, oranges, and a huge topaz. It was published as the Vogue cover for the issue of October 1, 1943, and launched Penn on his photographic career.
Penn soon demonstrated his extraordinary capacity for work, versatility, inventiveness, and imagination in a number of fields including editorial illustration, advertising, photojournalism, portraits, still life, travel, and television.
In his earlier work Penn was fond of using a particular device in his portrait work, replacing it with a fresh one from time to time. At one time he placed two backgrounds to form a corner into which his subject was asked to enter. It was, as Penn explains, “a means of closing people in. Some people felt secure in this spot, some felt trapped. Their reaction made them quickly available to the camera.” His subjects during this ‘corner period’ included Noel Coward, the Duchess of Windsor, and actor Spencer Tracy, most of whom complied readily.
Two series of portraits are especially memorable. One was made during Christmas in Cuzco, Peru, the other in studios in London, Paris, and New York. The first, in 1948 high in the Andes, followed a fashion assignment. With a few days to spend between planes, Penn persuaded the local photographer to rent him his studio. Pushing aside the ancient studio camera and picking up his Rollei, Penn made some 200 portraits in color and in black-and-white, in a studio that had a stone floor, a painted background, a small rug, and an upholstered posing chair similar to a piano stool.
The other series was the famous Small Trades project, a large number of workers posing formally in their work clothes and holding the implements of their trade or occupation. Each was posed against a plain background and lighted from the side, the characteristic lighting that has become identified with most of Penn’s portraiture.
In the 1950s, Penn founded his own studio in New York and continued to develop his fashion, commercial and personal work for the rest of his life. Notably, the series include Flowers – produced over seven years for Vogue‘s Christmas editions; Dahomey – taken in 1967 when visiting the kingdom for Vogue; Still Life – modernist compositions formed of objects Penn accumulated, and Cigarettes – shot in the early 1970s and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in his first exhibition in 1975.
Penn died in 2009, and his work is still widely exhibited around the world, and is held in major collections including the Art Institute of Chicago; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; National Portrait Gallery, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, amongst others. In 2013 The Irving Penn Foundation donated 100 images to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, bringing the number of works in their collection to 161.
(The Irving Penn Foundation was established to promote knowledge and understanding of the artistic legacy of Irving Penn, including the diversity of its mediums and subject matter. In furtherance of this mission, the Foundation’s objectives include preserving in excellent condition those works by Irving Penn that are owned by the Foundation; placing representative selections of the work of Irving Penn in the permanent collections of major institutions around the world; serving as a resource for reliable and comprehensive information about the life and work of Irving Penn; fostering high standards of quality in those publications that are authorized to reproduce the work of Irving Penn; and encouraging individuals and institutions whose artistic and scholarly endeavors advance the mission of the Foundation and uphold the values of Irving Penn.)
History of Irving Penn in The Met Collection
The Met’s collection of works by Irving Penn currently consists of some 145 photographs. These include a suite of 65 nude studies from 1949–50 donated by the artist in 2002 and featured that same year in The Met’s exhibition Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn’s Nudes, 1949-50 and its publication. In 2014, with funds from an anonymous benefactor, the Museum acquired from The Irving Penn Foundation an extraordinary group of 64 platinum prints from the artist’s celebrated Small Trades series from 1950–51 depicting laborers in Paris, London, and New York with the tools of their trades. The portraits of workers (as well as the nudes and other photographs in the Museum’s collection) will be a key component of the centennial exhibition.
The Museum began to acquire photographs by Irving Penn in 1959. It has presented two monographic shows on the artist to date: in 1977, Irving Penn: Street Material. Photographs in Platinum Metals, 1975–1976, and, in 2002, the aforementioned Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn’s Nudes.
The exhibition is made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Enterprise Holdings Endowment, and The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation. It is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with The Irving Penn Foundation.
Following its presentation at The Met, the exhibition will travel to the Grand Palais, Paris (September 2017–January 2018), and subsequently to Berlin and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The catalog is made possible by the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, Inc., the Mary C. and James W. Fosburgh Publications Fund, and the Roswell L. Gilpatric Publications Fund.
A scholarly publication will accompany the exhibition and include essays by Maria Morris Hambourg and Jeff L. Rosenheim, as well as by other scholars in the field. The publication will feature one of the largest selections of Penn’s photographs ever compiled—nearly 300—including famous and beloved images as well as works that have never been published. The accompanying essays will acquaint readers with Penn’s primary subjects and campaigns, including early still lifes and portraits, fashion, female nudes, the indigenous peoples of New Guinea, cigarettes studies, and much more.
A series of public exhibition tours are planned in conjunction with the exhibition. There will be an evening talk presented in conjunction with the exhibition, Leonard A. Lauder on the Photographs of Irving Penn. In this conversation with Jeff Rosenheim, Leonard Lauder (Chairman Emeritus, The Estee Lauder Companies, Inc.; Chairman Emeritus, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) will recall his long relationship with the artist, and his enduring fascination with the iconic American photographer’s work. It will take place on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, at 6:30 pm, in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at The Met Fifth Avenue. Tickets start at $45. Details available here.
The exhibition will be featured on The Met’s website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.