Photo: Irving Penn. Rochas mermaid dress (modeled by Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950. Platinum-palladium print, 1980; 19 7/8 × 19 3/4 inches (50.5 × 50.2 cm); the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; promised gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © Condé Nast.
Irving Penn, born a quarter century after Vogue was founded, spent 66 of his 92 years at the magazine. His first credit appeared in the August 1943 issue; his last in August 2009. In between, Penn created an unprecedented 165 covers—more than any other single photographer. These were in addition to indelible portraits that seemed to reveal the hidden selves of the famous sitters; the luminous couture compositions shot in natural light; the portfolios of indigenous peoples; the flower and small trades series. . . . Then there were his advertising and personal projects, which ranged from studies of nudes to cigarette butts and other detritus. Examples of all of these facets of Penn’s wide-ranging and unparalleled career are on view in “Irving Penn: The Centennial” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After the New York run, from April 24 to July 30, the show will travel the globe, much as Penn himself did.
The photographer might be described as a soul catcher as he seemed to be able to get to the essence of both people and objects; in addition, he had the rare ability to capture the spirit of things in a graphic way. Vogue’s Art Director Alexander Liberman coined the term “stoppers,” to describe the effect of a Penn picture. Met cocurator Maria Morris Hambourg echoed that sentiment, saying that Penn’s “seriously arresting” photographs “get under your skin.” Penn never sought the limelight, preferring to stay out of the picture—physically, at least. Penn, explains Hambourg, “was consumed by his art, and for the most part, he lived through it.” His was a gentle but probing existence that revolved around his family and his work. “We don’t call them shoots here,” Penn told journalist Jay Fielden in 2009. “We don’t shoot people. It’s really a love affair.”
1 Debut Couture Shoot for Vogue
Penn started at Vogue in 1943. After proving his talent as a still life and portrait photographer, Penn was eased into fashion work by Alexander Liberman, who instructed the usually jeans and sneakers–clad lensman to “buy an evening jacket and attend ‘the collections.’ ” Penn made his couture debut in 1950, photographing the latest fashion in a rickety studio—a former photography school, appropriately—furnished with a discarded theatrical curtain and infused with, Penn wrote, “the light of Paris as I had imagined it, soft but defining.” Penn made use of this light to interpret couture in photographs that became immediately iconic.
Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, February 15, 1946
3 Pieces on World War II
Unable to serve in the Army because of a heart condition, Irving Penn volunteered for the American Field Service. Sent overseas in 1944, he was attached to the British Army as a lensman and ambulance driver, holding posts in Italy, Austria, and India. In 1945 Vogue published an article titled, “Someone Is Always Watching You,” composed of snippets from letters sent from the Italian front. Penn, noted the editor, applied the “same talent for precision and observation” in his writing as in his photographs. The following year the magazine published his “Overseas Album,” comprising six pages of photographs and commentary, as well as “Sign Language,” a double-page spread of “posters from four war-shattered countries.”
Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, October 15, 1949
4 Prints of Girl Drinking (Mary Jane Russell) in the Met Show
This photograph, shot for the October 15, 1949, issue of Vogue, appears in the exhibition in four iterations: traditional gelatin silver print, circa 1960; gelatin silver print, 2000; and platinum-palladium prints from 1976 and circa 1977. Obsessed with printmaking, the photographer “believed that there were many ways to interpret his negatives during the printing process,” write the curators. “Variations,” they note, “were freedom for Penn: Each denoted a different thought about what the picture should express. It followed that there could be many versions of ‘perfect.’ ”
Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, December 1949
6 Ethnographic Christmas Portfolios
Penn had the travel bug. In 1947 he took a 30-day around-the-world flight with Vogue columnist Allene Talmey. The next year, after photographing model Jean Patchett in Peru, Penn continued on to Cuzco where he took photographs of the local people in traditional dress. The resulting story, “Christmas at Cuzco,” became the first of a series of portraits, continued in portfolios published between 1967 and 1971. Penn traveled to Benin, then the Republic of Dahomey, Nepal, Cameroon, New Guinea, and Morocco, to photograph, in a self-designed portable studio, his subjects wearing their own clothes on their own ground. Writing about the Dahomey pictures, the curators suggest that some of them “reveal a dichotomy of wills, a tension between the self-possession and occasional defiance of the sitters and the artist’s overt direction of their postures.”
Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, December 1968
9 Flower Portfolios
Commissioned for the magazine’s special Christmas issues, Penn created nine flower portfolios for the magazine between 1967 and 1971. The series kicked off with tulips; peonies, poppies, orchids, roses, lilies, begonias, and, finally, Long Island wildflowers followed. Though the subject matter was not chosen by Penn, flowers, note the curators, “became a passion for the duration of the commission.”
Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, May 1, 1947
12 Top Models Photographed by Penn in 1947
Because he was talented both at portraiture and still life photography, say the Met curators, Vogue assigned Penn to shoot group portraits. For one of them, in 1947, the magazine assembled a dozen of “the most photographed models in America.” This sitting was styled by one of the subjects, Muriel Maxwell, a mannequin and Vogue editor who reportedly zipped up the latter after dressing her colleagues. It was when creating “12 Beauties” that Penn met Lisa Fonssagrives, who would become his wife.
Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, February 1, 1949
14 Objects in Penn’s Award Winning Still Life
Penn’s first assignments for Vogue were still lifes. His “Still Life with Ace of Hearts” taken in 1947 and published in the February 1, 1949, issue won the magazine the Art Directors Club’s award “for distinctive merit in art for periodicals.
Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, July 1951
60 Number of Small Trades Published in *Vogue*
The largest series Penn ever took on was small trades. He photographed workers in Paris, London, and New York, and the work was published in the corresponding editions of Vogue (French, English, and American). Penn, write the Met curators, “photographed skilled tradespeople and street vendors with their tools and wares using the same type of daylight studio, the same neutral backdrop, and the same lighting as he did in sittings with fashion models and the cultural elite. This mix of butchers, bakers, and high-style makers, Penn quipped, was ‘a balanced meal.’ ”
Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, August 2009 / © The Irving Penn Foundation
66 Years, the Span of Irving Penn’s Career at Vogue
The photographer’s first and last images for the magazine were of food—shellfish and bananas—which appeared, respectively, in the August 1943 and 2009 issues of the magazine.
Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, April 1, 1950
165 Number of Vogue Covers Photographed by Penn
Between 1943 and 2004 Penn produced photographs for 165 Vogue magazine covers, more than any other artist to date. Jean Patchett was the subject of the photographer’s April 1, 1950, cover, his first in black-and-white, and the first non-color Vogue cover published since May 1932.
Photo: Irving Penn. Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1948. Gelatin silver print, 2000; 10 × 8 1/8 inches (25.4 × 20.6 cm); the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; promised gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © The Irving Penn Foundation
187 Number of Promised Gifts From The Irving Penn Foundation to the Met
Among this generous donation are many examples of celebrity portraiture, including this dramatic study of the “Blue Angel,” Marlene Dietrich, which ran in the December 1, 1950, issue of Vogue.