In and Out of Vogue: Irving Penn at the Met

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The timing of “Irving Penn: Centennial,” the Met’s mammoth new exhibition of the legendary photographer’s six decade career, seems slightly suspect. Ostensibly a celebration of Penn’s 100th birthday, it’s hard to ignore the incredible coincidence that the museum is opening a retrospective of one of Vogue’s most acclaimed photographers the week before its big Anna Wintour-helmed party (even harder when you realize that Penn was actually born in June).

But though its first words are “Celebrated for more than sixty years of masterly work at Vogue magazine,” the show is hardly an advertisement for Wintour’s periodical. If anything, it is a lament for a magazine and world long gone. Penn’s Vogue was closer to general-interest competitors like Look and Life, publications promising a pictorial overview of everything interesting happening in the world. The subjects in this exhibition—aged intellectuals like Igor Stravinsky and T.S. Eliot, fishmongers and sewer-cleaners, third world villagers from Dahomey and Papua New Guinea—are inconceivable in a contemporary fashion glossy. Today, Penn’s photographs feel like a defiant rebuke of American culture’s descent into celebrity-driven frippery. Despite working in fashion, he gave us reality, not a precursor of reality television.

That’s not to say that Penn didn’t photograph celebrities or models. He did, but in a way that consistently prized honesty over glitz. His preference for shadowy close-ups portrayed his subjects as they really were, not as they wanted to be seen. A 1964 photograph of Ingmar Bergman (even then, an unusually avant-garde figure for a fashion magazine) is typical. A weary-looking Bergman rubs his eyelids, warts and wrinkles prominently displayed. Half his face is bathed in shadow and the top of his head is chopped off. It’s a less-than-flattering photograph, but one that captures the director’s essence.

The real glamour shots in this exhibition are the pictures of non-celebrities, blue collars workers in London and Paris and indigenous peoples from Peru, Dahomey, Morocco and Papua New Guinea. Through subjects as diverse as window washers, veiled Muslim women and masked mud men in the same pages as pictures of models in couture, Penn (and Vogue) captured fashion on a global scale. It’s an approach that’s hard to imagine today—there’s no advertiser money in New Guinean headdresses—but it’s a democratic view of the industry that’s sorely missed, one that treats fashion as more than an ephemeral fad for the rich.

Focused as they are on body modifications like face-paint, nose discs and ritual scarring, these photographs of indigenous peoples also evince an interest in the human form as a malleable work of art. This was not without criticism. As the model Dorian Leigh once said of Penn, “He was a still life photographer. And that’s how he wanted people to be.” Leigh’s comment speaks to an important facet of Penn’s photography: he didn’t really care about the clothes. Even in his pictures of models in designer garb, Penn seems more concerned with how people wear clothes than with what they’re wearing. A 1950 close-up of the sleeve of a Balenciaga coat is typical. It captures the model’s self-confidence—a gloved, Napoleonish hand is determinedly slipped inside the jacket, and the photograph is cropped just far enough up the model’s face to show her gritted jaw. Yet there’s very little attention paid to the garment itself, and the model’s arm is positioned in such a way that the jacket’s fit and drape are unclear. In all his fashion photography, Penn makes just enough commercial concessions that he can pursue his real interest: studying the body.

The Nudes series show Penn free of editorial control. Abstracted photographs of nude, often overweight women, these works are taken at such extreme angles that their subjects are reduced to pure masses of flesh. While some critics have accused them of misogyny and mockery, that seems like a mischaracterization—these photographs openly revel in their subjects’ bodies, and are clearly concerned with the same questions of beauty and truth as the other works in the exhibition. A photograph of the Venus of Willendorf, the famous Neolithic statuette, is included in the wall text for this series. It’s a wise curatorial choice, one that places these pictures within a broader history of celebration of the fuller-sized female form.

Penn’s still life tendencies, and ability to find beauty in the unconventional, are most firmly felt in his famous Cigarette series. Photographs of cigarette butts found on the street, they show a fascination with geometric forms that brings to mind crumbling ancient columns. The brown smoke residue, the charred tobacco remnants, the striations of the paper, the individual brands’ typography on the cigarettes, the way the different filters look set against each other, even the bends in the butts—Penn’s crisp, high-contrast photography captures all of the different factors that individuate each cigarette stub, and the aesthetic power of seemingly-identical pieces of trash. Not only that, but in the way that they embrace the happenstance nature of the butts’ unique physical forms, they have a sense of humanity equaling to any of the people in the exhibition.

Although Penn worked up until his death in 2009, hardly any of his post-1975 work is on display, and it’s easy to understand why. Penn’s work is tied to a particular cultural moment, when people believed that highbrow culture and explorations of distant lands could exist within the pages of a fashion magazine. As the sincerity of that belief became harder to maintain, fashion magazines got a little more slick. Features on Peruvian farmers gave way to movie stars hawking haute couture. Advertisers started calling the shots in a way that they hadn’t before, and editors slowly turned into pitchmen.

So it’s fitting that the exhibition concludes with Penn’s advertisements for the avant-garde, independent designer Issey Miyake. How else could his work stay authentic?

“Irving Penn: Centennial” is on view through October 30. All photographs courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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