Earthly Bodies

august 2017


When asked to reveal the secrets of his portrait and studio works, Irving Penn, reckoned master of modernist photography, once responded: “I try to find a person at a very serene, true, and fairly restful moment.” 

Irving Penn MET NYC LE MILE Magazine published by Alban E. Smajli Picasso Portrait

Penn’s intensions, of course, were by no means altruistic. He acknowledged the ambiguous configurati- on between photographer and model, hoping to tip the balance towards his ends to overcome the particularity of the instant and the individual. Penn was determined to get past the public façade of sheer visuality, and he was fully aware of the cruelty of the photographic process that eventually deconstructed the very persona he meant to capture. For him, who the model was as
a real person was of no importance. The model was to be turned into a symbol. Indeed, any individualism had to be obscured, an anonymous, unreal quality was to be projected on the model. “As a photographer,” he frankly confessed, “the realism of the real world is something almost unbearable to me.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York now showcases a major retrospective of the photographs of Irving Penn to celebrate the centennial of the artist’s birth. Co-curated by Maria Morris Hambourg and Jeff L. Rosenheim, the exhibition provides a most compre- hensive perspective that starts with Penn’s early photographs of couture and then takes off to map his aesthetic development, following the overall geography of the oeuvre, so that the structure of the work, its internal coherence, stays intact and remains visible
to the audience. The retrospective includes examples of Penn’s early work in New York City, the American South, and Mexico, features his fashion and style icons 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, stages various classic photographs of Lisa Fonssagrives- Penn, and portraits of Truman Capote, Joe Louis, Picasso and others. Even more so, the Met has decided to embrace the infamous cigarette still lifes, and the travel accounts from Benin, New Guinea, and Morocco, opening Penn’s full range of artistic complexities to the audience. The exhibition will be displayed at the Met until July 30, 2017, will next travel to Paris and subsequently to Berlin and São Paulo. Irving Penn’s career was one of extraor- dinary longevity and comprehensiveness, spanning over more than seventy years, encompassing photography, painting, and drawing alike. 

Irving Penn MET NYC LE MILE Magazine published by Alban E. Smajli

Most famously recognized as a fashion photographer, Penn never restricted himself to a certain genre and ventured way beyond the limits of studio photography into the wilderness of still life, travel and documentary photography. Defining himself in the most uncomplicated mode as someone providing a useful service to industry, Penn, nonetheless, devoted a lifetime to explore the idiom of fashion and to resist forms of visual commodification in fashion photography. 

Born in 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey, to a Russian Jewish immigrant family, Penn attended Olney High School in Philadelphia and afterwards joined the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts, now the University of the Arts. Here, while studying design from 1934 to 1938, Penn was mentored by Alexey Brodovitch, the renowned art director of Harper’s Bazaar. Brodovitch introduced him to drawing, painting, graphics, and industrial arts. 
Still a student, Penn began working for Harper’s Bazaar under the auspices of Brodovitch who employed him as an assistant on private assignments and helped him secure a position at New York’s famed department store Saks on 5th Avenue. In 1941, Penn left for Mexico to paint, traveling in South and Latin America, taking photographs along the way. After a time, he realized that he would only make a mediocre painter and returned to take a job assisting Vogue’s new art director, Alexander Liberman, in New York City. Liberman was to be credited with Penn’s personal metamorphosis into a professional fashion photographer, urging him to produce a cover for Vogue in 1943. Indeed, Penn later recalled: “So the first color photograph I ever made became a Vogue cover.” Penn’s relationship with Liberman and Vogue was to last for six decades and, freed from any financial worries, allowed him to explore the genre of photography to its full extend. In a very unique sense, that exploration also meant to reconsider the balance between subject matters and photographic materials. Penn experimented with the use of platinum, palladium and iridium metals to produce the final images and he developed new darkroom techniques that relied on processes of overexposition and bleaching of prints. Most excellently, he employed his technical and material expertise in a series of nudes, made in between 1949 and 1950, that encapsulated an alternative vision of feminity. Overexposing each print to the state of absolute blackness first, he then bleached the images, eliminated the excess chemistry and brought out the subjects again. Penn did to the material what the models had done to their bodies. He stretched physical limits, transforming a group of couture, art-school mannequins into maternal, unglamorous, yet human figures. Solely out of portraiture, Irving Penn had succeeded to produce “earthly bodies”, bodies that seemed rather bearable to him.


CREDIT INFORMATION | Repros from LE MILE Magazine, issue 23, p.13+15 | LE MILE STUDIOS