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“Photographing a cake can be art.”—Irving Penn
Irving Penn is considered to be one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, and 2017 marks the centenary of his birth – in Plainfield, New Jersey (1917-2009). An exciting retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris, traces the course of his brilliant career.
The exhibition looks back over this remarkable man’s 70-year career, with more than 235 photographic prints, all produced by the artist himself, as well as a selection of his drawings and paintings. There’s a comprehensive vision of the wide range of genres he worked in: fashion, still life, portraits, nudes, beauty, cigarettes and debris. With his fine arts background, Penn developed a body of visual work that is defined by its raw, elegant simplicity, a taste for minimalism and an astonishing rigour – evident from the studio to the darkroom – where he perfected his unique photographic prints.
As visitors proceed through the 11 rooms – downstairs and upstairs – they’re on a fascinating chronological and thematic tour, discovering the artist’s productions, from early work – at the end of the 1930s – to his fashion and still life photography in the 1990s and 2000s.
Penn, a non smoker, famously photographed detritus, the ephemeral and the process of disintegration, particularly in his 1972 series of cigarette butt photographs. More than 20 images are displayed in a gallery of their own, just like the nudes and the portraits, because, as Penn himself pointed out, “A stubbed out cigarette tells the character, it tells the nerves. The choice of cigarette tells the taste of the person.” Scrap, metal blocks, objects from the streets and other detritus show Penn’s fascination with still life, from early images to the end of his career.
The exhibition opens with the first color “Still Life” portraits photographed for Vogue in 1943, preceded by street scenes in New York and images from the southern United States, Mexico, and Europe. After the war, Penn’s work moved from street to studio, which became the exclusive location of choice for his sittings. From 1947 to 1948, he produced portraits of artists, writers, fashion designers and other cultural figures for Vogue magazine, from Marcel Duchamp, Trueman Capote, Elsa Schiaparelli, Charles James and Salvador Dali to Jerome Robbins, Spencer Tracy, Igor Stravinsky and Alfred Hitchcock.
In December 1948, Penn travelled to Cuzco, Peru, where he photographed locals in the city celebrating the year’s end festivities. His photographs of Cuzco’s children are a reference in photographic history.
“The daylight is the light of Paris, the light of painters. It seems to fall as a caress”. In Paris in 1950 for Vogue, Penn was hailed as a master in the field of fashion photography, producing several of the greatest photographic icons of the 20th century. Some are studies of the 1950 couture collections worn by Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn – the artist’s Swedish born wife, the first supermodel – and muse.
At the same time he began a photographic study of the “Small Trades”, a fabulous series of portraits based on a centuries-old printmaking tradition, which he continued in London and New York. Penn used the same simple backdrop for all these photographs: a theatre curtain he’d found in Paris that he then kept in his studio – on display in the exhibition. Astonishing and moving!
In the 1950s and at the start of the swinging ‘60s, Penn photographed the likes of Picasso, Jean Cocteau, T.S. Eliot, Marlene Dietrich, Francis Bacon, Audrey Hepburn, Richard Burton, YSL and Colette, saying he wanted his work to be complete and profound, “like the art of Goya, Daumier and Toulouse-Lautrec”.
There’s a room of iconic nudes from Penn’s 1949-50 series, a celebration of the flesh, folded, twisted, tensed and released, brilliantly portrayed in his silver and platinum prints.
Between 1967 and 1971, Penn travelled to the Pacific and Africa for Vogue, recalled with portraits snapped in Dahomey (now Benin), New Guinea and Morocco. He shot his images in a traveling studio, set up in a tent, that he designed to accompany him on his travels.
The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to late fashion photographs and mature portraits of celebrities such as Ingmar Bergman, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Alvin Ailey and Zaha Hadid.
Need to know: With set design by Myrtille Fakhreddine and Nissim Haguenauer of Gare du Nord Architecture, the exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and The Réunion des musées nationaux– Grand Palais, in collaboration with The Irving Penn Foundation. It was presented from 24 April to 30 July 2017 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Grand Palais, Until 29th January, 2018. Avenue Winston Churchill, 8th. Metro: Champs-Elysées Clemenceau. Thursday-Monday 10am-8pm, Wednesday from 10am-10am, Closed Tuesday. Price : €13. Free for under 16s. Information and Reservations on :
Lead photo credit : Cuzco Children, courtesy of Grand Palais, Paris