Irving Penn. Audrey Hepburn, Paris, 1951. Gelatin silver print. Image: 13 3/4 x 13 7/16 in. (35 x 34.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation, 2021. © Condé Nast.
Irving Penn. Rock Groups (Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Grateful Dead), San Francisco, 1967. Platinum-palladium print. Image: 19 in. × 19 3/4 in. (48.3 × 50.2 cm). The Irving Penn Foundation. © The Irving Penn Foundation.
Irving Penn. Marlene Dietrich, New York, November 3, 1948. Gelatin silver print. 10 x 8 1/16 in. (25.4 x 20.4 cm.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation, 2021. © The Irving Penn Foundation.

Irving Penn photography Retrospective, 2024

de Young Museum, San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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The de Young’s exciting retrospective of 20th-century photographer Irving Penn (1917–2009) highlights the broad breadth of this creative artist. Although primarily known for his Vogue Magazine fashion covers, Penn’s portraits of celebrities, luminaries, laborers, documentary street scenes, modernist still lifes, abstract female nudes, and street debris close-ups display his prodigious range.

The exhibit of over 175 images begins with Penn’s early works in the late 1930s and continues into the early 2000s. Most are in black and white, but they are brimming with artistry, clarity, and precision. Organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exclusive West Coast show at the de Young includes a newly enhanced section of Penn’s photographs from the 1967 San Francisco Summer of Love.

Irving Penn’s creativity typically captured the essence of his subjects in front of a neutral cloth backdrop, using close-up angled shots. For Penn, the subject’s persona and expression was preeminent. The technically perfect photos are framed with simple white mats and black or white metal frames, which highlight but do not compete with the images.

The large, open series of galleries at the de Young Museum is generally organized chronologically. Still, certain rooms are set aside for Penn’s unique interests, like female nudes, street debris, and the Summer of Love, with a final general area called “Time Capsules 1962–2007.”

You have probably already seen some of Penn’s awesome celebrity shots found in the “Classic Portraits, 1948-62” gallery, like the black and white close-ups of Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, designers Gianni Versace and Yves Saint Laurent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, painter Pablo Picasso, and writers Truman Capote and Joan Didion.

But his portraits of unknown subjects like the European tradespeople with their tools in the “Small Trades” section (I love “Chef, New York, 1951, printed 1967”) and some citizens of Cuzco, Peru (“Cuzco 1948”) capture the same immediacy and intimacy. The “Newspaper Boy, Cuzco, December 1948, printed 1949” is astounding.

Penn’s “San Francisco Counterculture” images were done for Look Magazine in 1967. The arresting photographs of San Francisco rock bands, the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company, members of the Hells Angels, and random hippies make them appear young and almost innocent as they stare seriously into Penn’s camera.

Penn was born to a Russian Jewish family in small-town New Jersey. He studied painting and graphic design in Philadelphia in the 1930s. During the Second World War, he served as an ambulance driver (a heart condition prevented combat) and traveled through Italy, Austria, and India. His love of travel continued throughout his life, as his fascinating portraits of people in Africa and New Guinea indicate.
Penn’s first photographic cover for Vogue magazine appeared in October 1943, and he shot 160 covers for Vogue from 1943 to 2009. Penn founded his own New York studio in the 1950s and did advertising photography for clients including General Foods, De Beers, Issey Miyake, and Clinique. In 1950, he married one of fashion’s early supermodels, Lisa Fonssagrives. They were married until she died in 1992. Don’t miss Penn’s gorgeous images of her.

The museum’s audio tour, detailed labels, wall chat information, and printed catalog all benefit one’s enjoyment of this rightly celebrated artist.

By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2024 All Rights Reserved

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