Irving Penn. Underfoot XXXV, New York, 2000. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of The Irving Penn Foundation in memory of James Wood. © by The Irving Penn Foundation.

Irving Penn, an Exploration of the Canvas beneath our Feet

Irving Penn. Underfoot XXXIII, New York, 2000. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of The Irving Penn Foundation in memory of James Wood. © by The Irving Penn Foundation.

Irving Penn. Underfoot I, New York, 1999. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of The Irving Penn Foundation in memory of James Wood. © by The Irving Penn Foundation.


Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
Modern Wing
Carolyn S. and Matthew Bucksbaum Gallery – Gallery 188
Irving Penn: Underfoot
January 18-May 12, 2013

One of the world's preeminent photographers, Irving Penn (1917–2009) is famous for portraiture, still lifes, and fashion. However, the path that led Penn to the galactic abstractions of his late series titled Underfoot lay just outside his studio door. Irving Penn: Underfoot, features 36 gelatin silver prints presented as a complete series to the public for the first time. The series, created mostly in 2000-2001, shows the grit of Manhattan pavement transformed with Penn’s precision into a world of odd beauty. The works in the exhibition, described to the artist by former Art Institute director James Wood as “the cosmos underfoot,” is accompanied by a demonstration of Penn’s painstaking photographic process.

Irving Penn studied design from 1934 to 1938 at Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art under Alexey Brodovitch, who later hired Penn as his assistant, first at Harper’s Bazaar and later at Saks Fifth Avenue department store. In 1943, Penn photographed an original cover for the October 1943 issue of Vogue, which marked the beginning of the his long-lived association with the magazine. Penn completed nearly 160 cover assignments for Vogue — an enduring partnership that made Vogue and the photography of Irving Penn synonymous. His decision to concentrate on the model or sitter, placing his subjects against a neutral background and removing them from conventional settings, was only one part of his wide-ranging innovation. Penn’s oeuvre includes nudes, still lifes, product advertisements, and ethnographic studies taken around the globe.

Treating the pebbled, gum-spattered Manhattan pavement as a readymade canvas, Penn walked the city streets with two assistants, a folding chair, and medium-format Hasselblad camera fitted with tubes that extended the lens to the ground. Penn used color positive film but printed his works in black and white with darkroom manipulations and toning. The uncanny appearance of familiar yet unplaceably remote images in Underfoot — masticated gum, cigarette butts, discarded matches — demonstrates Penn’s innovative and meticulous technical process. The photographer’s camera and other equipment, like a light-blocking cardboard triangle, are displayed in the gallery to animate his working method.

The Irving Penn Foundation has offered all 36 photographs in the Underfoot series as a gift to the Art Institute in memory of Jim Wood, with whom Penn worked closely to establish the vast archive of photographs and papers held by the museum. Last year, the Art Institute received more than 100 photography gifts in honor of Wood, with contributions that include prints by Florence Henri, André Kertész, Abelardo Morell, and Milton Rogovin. The Art Institute also recently launched an online resource that illuminates the working methods, themes, and techniques of one of photography’s most significant figures.

Irving Penn: Underfoot is organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and curated by Matthew S. Witkovsky, Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator, Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago.


Irving Penn. Underfoot XXIV, New York, 2000. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of The Irving Penn Foundation in memory of James Wood. © by The Irving Penn Foundation.

Irving Penn, Cat Woman, New Guinea, 1970, © Copyright by The Irving Penn Foundation.

Irving Penn, Astride Commercial and Artistic Practices

Irving Penn, Ingmar Bergman (1 of 4), Stockholm, 1964, © Copyright by The Irving Penn Foundation.

Irving Penn, Fishmonger, London, 1950, © by Condé Nast Publications Ltd.


Moderna Museet
Gasverksgatan 22
+ 040-685 79 37
Irving Penn: Diverse Worlds
June 16-September 2, 2012

For the first time in the Öresund region, a rich selection of Irving Penn’s photographs from some of his most famous serial photography will be presented. His innovative fashion features, portraits and still-lifes made Irving Penn one of the leading photographers of our time. Spanning more than 60 years, his career is characterised by a cool, minimalist approach to the medium. With a selection of nearly 90 works and samples from his assignments for numerous publications, the exhibition at Moderna Museet Malmö covers a broad spectrum of Irving Penn’s oeuvre.

Irving Penn (1917-2009) is regarded as one of the leading photographers of our time. He was active in both the commercial and artistic fields. In 1985, he won the prestigious Hasselblad Award. In his terse serial works, Irving Penn developed a style that is distinguished by its sharpness, detail, meticulousness and minimalist imagery. The exhibition Diverse Worlds presents photographs from his most famous series and spans more than half a century. Most of these works were donated to Moderna Museet in 1995 by Penn himself, in memory of his wife, Swedish-born Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn.

Diverse Worlds is a broad resumé of Irving Penn’s oeuvre, revealing clearly the consistent style that is characteristic of his photographs. His output is typically imbued with an inquisitive eye and attention to detail, whatever the subject matter. A discussion of the commercial-artistic dichotomy seems rather pointless in the case of Irving Penn, who balanced constantly between the two, allowing one to benefit the other. His experience and background as a painter, for instance, came in handy when he was commissioned by established fashion houses to create their advertisements for publications such as Vogue – a magazine Penn worked for throughout most of his career.

In post-war New York, many cultural celebrities visited Irving Penn’s studio. The turmoil that prevailed after the Second World War was illustrated by portraying these ostensibly immortal icons trapped in a narrow corner. Penn has also related how this corner was created in his studio to counteract his own feelings of inferiority in relation to the celebs he portrayed. The less famed were also captured by Irving Penn’s camera, including small tradesmen in London and Paris, and members of Hell’s Angels in San Francisco. Life’s transience is distinctly visualised in many of the still-lifes Penn made in his career – often commissioned by fashion houses but also as part of his own projects.

Despite the variation in these pictorial series, Irving Penn’s oeuvre, and the presentation in Diverse Worlds, reveals a consistent curiosity and desire, and a wish to depict the divergent subjects in the same sensitive and detailed way. He achieved this by placing them all in the same setting. Different image worlds meet and are literally constructed in the same neutral space — Irving Penn’s studio.

Curators of the exhibition are Andreas Nilsson and John Peter Nilsson.


Irving Penn, Balenciaga Little Great Coat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950, © Copyright by The Irving Penn Foundation.


Irving Penn, Frozen Foods with String Beans, New York, 1977, © Copyright by The Irving Penn Foundation.


Irving Penn, Louise Bourgeois, New York, 1992, Gelatin silver print, selenium toned, 10-7/16 x 10-3/8", The Morgan Library & Museum; Purchased as the gift of Richard L. Menschel and with the support of The Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Americana and The Margaret T. Morris Fund; 2007.42, Copyright 1992 by Irving Penn.

Irving Penn Documents the Artists and Writers of His Time

Irving Penn, Pablo Picasso, Cannes, France, 1957, Gelatin silver print, selenium toned (2000), 26-3-4 x 26-9/16", The Morgan Library & Museum; Purchased as the gift of, Richard L. Menschel and with the support of The Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Americana and The Margaret T. Morris Fund; 2007.69, Copyright 1960 by Irving Penn.

Irving Penn, Joan Miró and His Daughter, Dolores, Tarragona, Spain, 1948, Gelatin silver print, selenium toned (1983), 10-15/16 x 10-9/1', The Morgan Library & Museum; Gift of Irving Penn; 2007.17, Copyright 1960 by Irving Penn.

Irving Penn, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1948, Gelatin silver print, selenium toned (1991), 22-3/8 x 19-5/16", The Morgan Library & Museum; Purchased as the gift of Richard L. Menschel and with the support of The Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Americana and The Margaret T. Morris Fund; 2007.67, Copyright 1984 by Irving Penn.

Irving Penn, T.S. Eliot, London, 1950, Gelatin silver print, selenium toned (1984), 16-5/8 x 15-7/16", The Morgan Library & Museum; Gift of Irving Penn; 2007.62, Copyright 1960 by Irving Penn.

Irving Penn, Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1948, Gelatin silver print, selenium toned (1984), 9-9/16 x 7-7/1/16", The Morgan Library & Museum; Gift of Irving Penn; 2007.14, Copyright 1984 by Irving Penn.


The Morgan
Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
at 36th Street
New York
Close Encounters:
Irving Penn Portraits
of Artists and Writers

January 18-April 13, 2008

For the first time in its history, The Morgan Library & Museum presents an exhibition devoted solely to modern photography, showcasing the institution’s first major set of acquisitions in this field. Close Encounters: Irving Penn Portraits of Artists and Writers features sixty-seven portraits of some of the twentieth-century’s most influential artists, authors, and performers by legendary photographer Irving Penn (b. 1917).

This rare collection of gelatin silver prints was acquired by the Morgan in 2007 and constitutes an extraordinary visual record of some of the greatest creative minds of the period, including Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Salvador Dalí, T. S. Eliot, Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Aaron Copland, Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein II. Featuring portraits from every decade of Penn’s sixty-year career to date — beginning with a 1944 photograph of Giorgio de Chirico and ending with a 2006 portrait of Jasper Johns — Close Encounters celebrates Penn as one of the great portrait photographers of our time and captures the feel of New York as a cultural capital during the postwar years.

Based in New York City for more than fifty years, Irving Penn has documented numerous international artists and writers including Max Ernst, Frederick Kiesler, Jorge Luis Borges and Simone de Beauvoir as well as New Yorkers, both native and adopted, who shaped metropolitan life, such as Langston Hughes, George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, Saul Steinberg, Woody Allen, Louise Bourgeois, and Rudolf Nureyev. Many of the portraits on view at the Morgan bear witness to a time when incredible talent from Europe was migrating to New York, transforming the American art scene.

“Irving Penn’s incisive portraits illustrate a rich and defining period in this city’s cultural history,” said Charles E. Pierce, Jr., director of The Morgan Library & Museum. “Many of Penn’s subjects are artistic and literary icons whose own drawings, musical scores, manuscripts, and books are represented in the Morgan’s growing twentieth-century collections. For all these reasons, we could not imagine a more fitting home for these magnificent portraits than the Morgan.”

“Each of these works is a vivid record of the encounter between Penn and his subject,” said guest curator Peter Barberie. “If a fundamental task of portraiture is to capture subjects differently than they present themselves to the world, then Penn has succeeded admirably. He enters into hard negotiation with every personality that stops in front of his camera and, very often, he wins.”

Irving Penn began his career as a photographer in the 1940s working for Vogue in New York. His compositions helped define the look of the magazine and established a groundbreaking aesthetic for modernist photography. Penn’s signature style is pared down, reducing portraiture to its essential elements by capturing subjects in the light of the studio and using only simple props to facilitate the composition. His method involves an intense engagement between subject and photographer that permeates every one of his images.

More than one third of the Morgan’s exhibition focuses on Penn’s work from the 1940s, documenting the evolution and maturation of his style. In 1947 he began photographing subjects seated on or in front of a draped rug, including Salvador Dalí, who usually dominated photographers and the portraits they made of him. On Penn’s rug, however, Dalí looks caught, though stylish and defiant. In 1948 Penn constructed a temporary corner out of movable walls within his studio and directed sitters to inhabit the restricted space. Among the 1948 corner photographs on view at the Morgan, Truman Capote is shown armed with an overcoat and a chair, playing to his childlike persona; Marcel Duchamp is elegantly posed and dressed, a svelte, tall line echoing that of the corner itself; and Georgia O’Keeffe, who as Alfred Stieglitz’s wife and model was frequently photographed, stands warily without pose.

Penn’s portraits from the 1950s, ten of which are featured in the exhibition, begin to capture many of his subjects up close, sometimes cropping their forms to accentuate the two-dimensional design of a composition or filling the large picture frame with a bust or just a head. Penn’s iconic 1957 image of Picasso cloaks the artist’s face in the shadows of a wide-brimmed hat and the folds of a dark overcoat, leaving only the piercing stare of a single illuminated eye to radiate from the center of the photograph.

Throughout his career, Penn has also produced celebrated group portraits. Examples include the 1967 photograph Rock Groups, which captures Janis Joplin and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, alongside the Grateful Dead in San Francisco at a moment when both groups were in the earliest stages of fame. A 1960 photograph of the architect and designer Frederick Kiesler with his younger counterpart, the painter Willem de Kooning, depicts two European artists who were principals of the New York art world of the 1950s.

Since the 1960s, Penn has often reduced his portraits to the busts or even just the heads of his sitters. The theater of the studio recedes altogether, leaving just the photographer and the subject in a tug-of-war over the final image. Sometimes subjects close their eyes — for instance, the portraits of Ingmar Bergman (1964), Arthur Miller (1983), and Louise Bourgeois (1992). Only rarely does a subject gaze back at Penn with apparent total acquiescence, as in the powerful 2006 portrait of Jasper Johns.

Thirty-five of the works in the show are the gift of Mr. Penn. The acquisition of the remaining thirty-two was made possible through the efforts of Morgan director Charles E. Pierce, Jr.; Morgan trustee and vice president Richard L. Menschel; and Peter MacGill, president of Pace/MacGill Gallery, who has represented Mr. Penn for many years.

This exhibition is made possible by a generous gift from Richard and Ronay Menschel.

Irving Penn was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1917 and studied design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. After moving to New York, where he resides today, Penn worked under Vogue magazine art director Alexander Liberman, who encouraged him to take his first color photograph — a still life — which ultimately became the October 1, 1943, cover of the magazine.

Penn’s close collaboration with Vogue continues to the present day, and he is a contributor to other magazines and commercial clients in America and abroad. He has published eleven books and has had exhibitions at a number of major museums, including The Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Gallery of Art. His photographs are also included in the permanent collections of these institutions.



Irving Penn (b. 1917), Ingmar Bergman, Stockholm, 1964, The Morgan Library & Museum; Gift of Irving Penn; 2007.64, Copyright 1965 by Irving Penn.