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. Continue reading