Irving Penn

Irving Penn

Irving Penn 1950
Pace/Macgill Gallery
New York, 32 East 57th Street, 9th floor

Irving Penn by no means of introduction, is one of the most influential and prolific photographers. During a career spanning more than a half-century, most of it spent at Vogue, he not only brought new photographic techniques to the world of fashion but also transformed fashion photography from sole documentation to an art form. redefined the way of how a contemporary woman looked like.

From the very beginning of his photographic career at Conde Nast in 1943, Penn was highly interested in the theatricality of the clothes. Instead of simply capturing the fabrics, he was organizing the photoshoots around a theme or an event that acted as context for the garments. In his own words, he was taking ‘’situation photographs’’ where he was seeking for the possibilities to transform the concept of a photo shoot into something else. He was able to blend the elements of fashion photography with portraiture. With his avant-garde approach, his models became more than just live mannequins for the clothes but rather psychologically complex characters, if still, imaginary individuals.

  Charwomen, London, 1950 platinum palladium print mounted to aluminum image, 16 3/8 x 15 1/8 inches © Condé Nast (Br.)

Charwomen, London, 1950 platinum palladium print mounted to aluminum image, 16 3/8 x 15 1/8 inches © Condé Nast (Br.)

The exhibition at Pace/MacGill Gallery features both his editorial and personal work from just a single year of Penn’s extraordinary seven-decade career. The significance of 1950 is that it is known to be the breakthrough year for Penn; it is when he traveled to Paris to create series of photographs for fall couture Under the instruction of Vogue’s then Art director, Alexander Liberman. With the use of natural light of the top floor of his studio along with a discarded theater curtain as a seamless, neutral backdrop, he started shooting and in ten days he completely transformed the visual aesthetics of fashion photography.

  Lorry Washers, London, 1950 platinum palladium print image, 19 1/4 x 14 5/8 inches © Condé Nast (Br.)

Lorry Washers, London, 1950 platinum palladium print image, 19 1/4 x 14 5/8 inches © Condé Nast (Br.)

The subjects that Irving Penn’s photographs are very diverse. They are ranging from nudes, butchers, pastry chefs, charwoman to larry washers they are all posing like against Penn’s mottled up backdrop with the same elegance as his couture models. These subjects in a way become the representations of many facets of Paris. However, the main focus is Lisa Fonssagrives- whom he married in London after meeting his first couture photoshoot. By looking through his photographs, it could be easily understood that he was a portraitist. The way he put his characters into tight corners in awkward poses shows unfamiliar elements of their personalities in camera. In many photos, the subjects appear as they are wedged into the corner.Penn also challenges the notion of photography both in composition and the subject. He takes radical approach on his technique by overexposing, bleaching and redeveloping his prints to achieve unusual yet stunning tonal effects. In the exhibition,observed that the tightly framed, series of plump nudes are made with these unconventional techniques. For Penn, it is an exploration of  the beauty and the celebration of the physicality of the female form. They are sophisticated, slightly ahead of their time.. Not surprisingly, these nudes were not exhibited until 1980.

  Irving Penn, T.S. Eliot(A), London, 1950 gelatin silver print image, 10 3/4 x 10 1/2 inches © The Irving Penn Foundation

Irving Penn, T.S. Eliot(A), London, 1950 gelatin silver print image, 10 3/4 x 10 1/2 inches © The Irving Penn Foundation

Simple, sophisticated, and powerful, Irving Penn's iconic covers for Vogue Magazine display the clean lines and tapered waists of Postwar Paris and New York, and the aesthetic of the fashion industry. Penn removes everything from the shot but the clothing and the model. Inspired by Surrealism, Modern dance, and film noir, his images are more like provocative visual statements, not solely commercial photographs. His striking lit figures almost becomes breathing sculptures as one’s eye travel over them. With a solid grasp on the geometry of the body, the psychology of consumerism, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of art, Penn lifts fashion photography into a new level: the realm of high art.

The exhibition runs through June 30th.

Jennifer Wen Ma

Jennifer Wen Ma

Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat