Irving Penn’s bold, deliberate photos helped define the look of Vogue Magazine and, it could be said, of fashion photography itself.
“Insufferably elegant” is how it was described by Roberta Smith in the New York Times. He photographed everything, from still lives of fruit and broken bread to aggressively intimate portraits. And the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be celebrating all of his work in their new exhibition, “Irving Penn: Centennial,” in honor of his 100th birthday (Penn died in 2009).
His working career spanned nearly 70 years and produced thousands of published photographs in magazines around the world. This exhibition features a gift of 190 vintage prints from the Penn Foundation, as well as many pieces of work done for Vogue.
Penn bought his first camera, a state-of-the-art Rolleiflex, in 1938 while working as an artist for various magazines. Five years later, he was hired by Alexander Liberman to design covers for Vogue, which is when he first began to use his own photographs.
In the next decade, he became a name. Models and celebrities fought to be photographed by him. Penn had an incredible eye for finding the secrets in a subject, then framing them to hint just tantalizingly at those secrets.
That quality is perhaps best featured in one of the highlights of this exhibition; a cluster of portraits of Peruvians in traditional dress that Penn shot in 1948, in Cuzco. Posing and lit in contrasts, each of those models shows a huge depth of dignity and personality that draws the eye.
Another piece to pay particular attention to is the set of four toned prints titled “Girl Drinking (Mary Jane Russell), New York,” made from altered negatives. They’re simple and beautiful, and exactly what they say.
“Irving Penn: Centennial” opened on April 24th and will run through July 30, 2017 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.