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
Irving Penn Portraits
of Artists and Writers
January 18-April 13, 2008
By STEVE SHAPIRO
Irving Penn’s death at 92 last October now seems appropriate in a not too macabre sense. His passing came at the end of a decade that saw photography emerge as the dominant art form — the 00’s era was defined by the multifarious images of the Twin Towers attack and the Iraq War — yet Penn lived and continued to work, thrillingly, into the first years after the modern century that saw the rise of photography, as a hobby, an art, and a social component. Though cinema was undoubtedly the art form of the 20th-century, and the amateur advantage of videos via YouTube and other Internet sites has made it easy for anyone to become Jean-Luc Godard (well, maybe not Godard, but Andy Samberg), photography continues to be the Everyman’s art form; and Penn, staking out his claim somewhere between Walker Evans’s primary black-and-white realism and Cindy Sherman’s latterly extravagant performance photography, kept his eye on the shutter. A Penn photograph was unforgettable, but not undoable — well, not if one had his instinct, his experience, his visual acuity and his creative drive.
Penn’s death brings to a close the golden era of classic photography. Like the last of their species, the deaths of Horst (1999), Bill Brandt (1983), Diane Arbus (1971), André Kertesz (1985), Yousef Karsh (1983), Henri Cartier-Bresson (2004), Helen Levitt (2009), and Penn’s peer, Richard Avedon (2004), among others, represented the final act in the cultivation and the domination of a medium that connected the world — Karsh’s portrait of a scowling Churchill; Cartier-Bresson’s spontaneous shot of a man leaping over a puddle; Avedon’s fashion fantasy of Dovima among a herd of elephants: such images bore the genius of immediate (and memorable) identification.
Over time, photojournalism, street photography, portraiture, still life, and fashion photography have evolved into a central force in the collective consciousness of people worldwide, whether they can identify “an Avedon” or “a Penn” or “a Robert Frank” (still alive at 86), the way they can a popular Pop song or a movie quote. When, in the movies Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian and the comic-book adaptation Watchmen, the same famous Eisenstaedt photograph of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square during the Victory Celebration ending the War was used (in the first, the characters enter into the photograph; in the second, in a bit of historical revisionism the two strangers kissing are both women), it had to be assumed that enough moviegoers would get the reference. Without some overlap, there can be no culture.
The long arc of Irving Penn’s career — his first Vogue cover was published in the October, 1943 issue — permitted him to experiment with the medium as it evolved, to infuse his personal vision into editorial work, to take the intellectualization of a photograph (much less “a Penn”) and up-end it. His published nudes from 1949-1950, brought out in the volume Earthly Bodies, in 2002, showed doughy nudes that recalled Modigliani’s sitters as photographed by Edward Weston. Simultaneously, a small volume, Dancer, of eerie, black-and-white nude portraits of the overweight dancer Alexandra Beller, was published, and both studies were turned into much-scrutinized exhibitions. Then, and now, some critics seemed horrified by their inclusion into Penn’s oeuvre; to review them now, like the experience of seeing them the first time, is to wonder at the fear these tame photographs exuded, especially after several decades that brought forth Arbus’s freaks, Mapplethorpe’s blunt eroticism, Nan Goldin’s sex-and-drug addicts, Sally Mann’s exposed daughters and even the medical oddities of Joel-Peter Witkin. Perhaps it was because Penn was always associated with the Perfect, the Beautiful, and the Illusion (that he helped to create).
Penn made an irascible habit of dovetailing between the beautiful and the real. Throughout his fashion career and celebrity portraiture, he went for the overlooked and the untouched: a rotting banana peel, cigarette butts, a chewed up glove and a crumpled piece of paper; that image, Twisted Paper (1975), with its accompanying detritus photographed on a white background, looks, well, perhaps not gorgeous in the sense of the well-known nude portrait of the young Giselle Bündchen, but alive in a similar sense. Through the photograph, it becomes beautiful for being real.
We take photography for granted so much anymore that it is all but impossible to shed our complacency about its history and its innovations. Street photography of the sort relentlessly developed by Robert Frank, William Eggleston and Helen Levitt, or the tabloid genre coined by Weegee, have their places in art history; but in photography’s evolutionary line, the past — at least, for many people — is forgotten. The numerous fashion photographers who have stepped into the positions of power once held by Penn and Avedon continue to shoot the same models and similar compositions. The oomph! factor is now de rigueur. Has there been an image since with the iconic power of Avedon’s 1981 shot of a large boa coiled around a nude Nastassja Kinski? Annie Leibovitz’s photographs are lit up like opera sets, yet her work is all about the work. Penn’s 1957 portrait of Picasso, draped in an oversized hat and bundled up in a coat, half his face in darkness but the exposed half revealing that famous gaze, is another hard-to-top image, despite the thousands of professional and amateur celebrity-seeking photographers who have come after him. It is the fragile balance of subject and artist.
If Penn’s career — his first interest, like Cartier-Bresson, was in drawing, and then he made his way through an apprenticeship with the Russian genius for graphic design, Alexey Brodovitch, at Harper’s Bazaar— came about the usual way, he never relied on what he had accomplished to help him with the next assignment. I think the fact that Penn, like Avedon with his In the American West project, kept returning to some personal undertaking (Penn photographed tribes peoples in New Guinea, Nepal, and Morocco, and in Small Trades 1950-era portraits from London, Paris, and New York of tradesmen such as cobblers, organ grinders, and chair caners) it displays a searching sensibility that has largely vanished as the Internet ironically brings the world’s focus narrower and narrower to what friends are doing and how our days are going minute by minute. The days of the Big Picture, in both senses, seems to be over; photography exists of everything, but less of it matters, either as subject or as art.
Looking through Penn’s collected books, scanning his near 150 Vogue covers, pausing to awe again over the clarity and character of his portraits, is to be reminded of Hemingway’s comment that he was born at the right time. Penn grew up as fashion was carrying the larger post-war international culture with it. His mentors Brodovitch and Alexander Lieberman, the Vogue art director from the 1940s- 990s, gave him advice and freedom; we assume magazines are there for us now, to fill in our needs for knowledge and trivia, yet few readers are devoted readers, the way Vogue, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Life bred readers who waited for the next issue.
As with the late John Updike’s absence from The New Yorker that has left it a much less necessary magazine, so too the absence of Avedon and Penn has turned the once distinctive fashion magazines into imitations of each other and of their old selves. Penn’s hand had a way of making fashion, in the best sense, move both forward and backward: one always wanted to see what he would see next, and then one would be happy with looking back at how he did it.