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Celebrating 100 Years of the Mighty Irving Penn

Irving Penn took his time. Whether shooting still lifes or celebrities, the photographer — whose centennial is being celebrated with a lavish exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through June 30 — approached his work with a classical rigor and playful curiosity that chipped away at the walls between fine art and commerce and helped define the visual vernacular of mid-century America.

<i>After-Dinner Games</i>, New York, 1947<br>
Originally trained as a painter, Penn returned to the still life throughout his career; in fact, his first cover for Vogue, in 1943, depicted a bejeweled glove, wide belt, and leather purse. Unlike in his portraits, which he tended to shoot in black-and-white, Penn embraced color in his shots of food, flowers, party favors, and other good-time detritus.

As far back as 1958, fifteen years after he shot the first of his 165 covers for Vogue, Penn was being celebrated as one of the world’s greatest living photographers in the pages of Popular Photography magazine. But Penn’s vision extended well beyond high fashion. A son of working-class New Jersey, Penn invested tradesmen and artisans with the same grace and nobility as foreign dignitaries and Hollywood icons. He photographed many of the stars and cultural icons of the twentieth century — Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Stravinsky, Louis Armstrong, Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Langston Hughes, Grace Kelly, Truman Capote, Joe Louis, Audrey Hepburn, John Updike, Carson McCullers, David Bowie, Jessye Norman, Zaha Hadid, Steve Jobs — but he also shot Peruvian peasants and New Guinean tribal chiefs. His still lifes of flowers or even cigarette butts are rendered with the same care as advertising campaigns he shot for L’Oréal.

<i>Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn)</i>, Paris, 1950<br>
Irving Penn made his name as a fashion photographer, shooting for Harper’s Bazaar and then, famously, for Vogue. But of all his many subjects, none compared to Lisa Fonssagrives, the Swedish stunner widely considered the first supermodel. Penn married her in 1950, the same year he took this portrait.

Toward the end of his life, Penn described how he wanted his ideal viewer to experience his work: as if it were a journey “through many countries, through years of time, in the presence of lovely women and brilliant men…among inanimate objects, foods, drawings, paintings, amusements, and seductions.” All of that is on display at the Met, and Penn captured it with a coolness and restraint that revealed more vulnerability than status. His images are not nude, exactly — though he did nudes, too — but they are naked, self-consciously spare and free from distraction. For seventy years, Penn gracefully — and pioneeringly — negotiated the increasingly porous borders of art, editorial, and advertising. He did it all, basically — and with style.

<i>Truman Capote</i>, New York, 1948<br>
In the late Forties, Penn enjoyed shooting subjects such as literary enfant terrible Capote in claustrophobia-inducing environs, as if they were literally cornered by his camera. “This confinement surprisingly seemed to comfort people,” Penn noted. “It soothed them. The walls were a surface to lean on or push against.” <i>Naomi Sims in Scarf</i>, New York, c. 1969<br>
Along with fellow mid-century pioneers such as Richard Avedon and David Bailey, Penn helped elevate fashion photography to the realm of high art, influencing everyone from Helmut Newton and Peter Lindbergh to David LaChapelle and Terry Richardson. Today Penn’s work can be seen in museums throughout the world. <i>Single Oriental Poppy</i>, New York, 1968<br>
Visitors to the exhibition at the Met are greeted by two of Penn’s still lifes, one depicting a watermelon, the other the ingredients for a salad. For viewers accustomed to the photographer’s signature black-and-white palette, the ravishing mastery of color comes as a shock.

<i>Two Miyake Warriors</i>, New York, 1998<br>
Few photographers were better equipped than Penn to capture the structural
and architectural qualities of high fashion. A direct line can be drawn between the tribal warriors from Papua New Guinea he shot in the Seventies to these couture- clad “warriors” from the photographer’s later years.

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