Nothing Personal

John Haber
in New York City

Irving Penn: Personal Work and Centennial

"Irving Penn: Personal Work" begins and ends in the gutter. At least it begins and ends on the way there.

Even the traces of his private walks along New York streets have star power, though, and the surfaces of his fashion photography have their dark corners as well. So where does his personal vision begin and end? Penn, who began as a painter, was not just a fashion photographer. A year later, the Met insists on it, by opening and closing a more abundant survey of his work with still life, like the remains of a meal. It catches a man lighting a woman's cigarette, a girl drinking, and a woman resting her chin on the bridge of a man's nose. Yet there, too, he takes pains to compose the apparent artlessness. Irving Penn's The Bath (A) (Dancers Workshop of San Francisco) (Irving Penn Foundation/Pace gallery, 1967)

Out of the gutter

A search for Irving Penn behind the public image opens with scraps on the sidewalk, blown up to poster size. It ends with cigarette butts brought together like the columns of a ruined monument. The first could pass for dark creatures or their shrouds, the second for sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. It takes time to make out the cigarette labels, in faint type on white against white, or to separate objects from their ashes—and longer still to forget them.

Penn was always concerned for making his subjects last and less so for what they were. He spoke of a print's beauty lying in the thing itself, and he took care in its making, preferring platinum prints by his own hand for their velvet tones and permanence. They say that celebrity and fashion are fleeting, but he made his name on the covers of Vogue. He gave a slim model a flowing profile out of James McNeill Whistler, Pablo Picasso a bullfighter's hat and cape, and Marlene Dietrich a black cloak filling more than half the frame. Not solely the demands of fashion photography compelled his fixation of clothing and surfaces. When he takes to an ashtray or the streets, like Henry Rothman before him, he returns on his own to black.

So what if the scraps are difficult to pin down, and so, too, are the feelings behind them? A show of "personal work" promises that special peek behind the veneer, like John Singer Sargent at the Met last fall with portraits of "artists and friends." Even so, Penn might reply, nothing personal. He still often works on commission, as for San Francisco's Dancers Workshop in 1967, and he is still crafting. Those opening relics span twenty-five years, from 1975 to 2000, as experiments in the photographic process. The earlier shots against a white background took translating the objects to his studio, while the later ones, titled Underfoot, took the development of a macro lens to zoom in on the street.

They have become part of his image, too, and people still quarrel as to what that was. Accounts of him always begin with Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, but MoMA exhibited his butt ends as early as 1975. Alison Nordström, a curator at the George Eastman House, has said that he made trash or Hells Angels "appear as elegant as a Parisian fashion model," while Rosalind E. Krauss called them a "covert attack" on his commercial identity. Could both be right? The show captures his delving into nudes in the 1940s, into archaeological digs and animal skulls in the 1980s, and into his own face distorted by camera movements in the 1990s, with full awareness of death but obvious pleasure in their proportions. A series of pitchers from as late as 2007, with more grain and sometimes fallen on their side, recalls the stability of Jean-Siméon Chardin, but also the intimations of mortality in classic Dutch still life.

They also end just two years before his death. Could they reveal something personal after all? Penn grew up comfortably enough in New Jersey, but the son of Russian Jews had to know about the gutter. The opening room also includes as a kind of prologue his roaming New York's streets in 1939, at just twenty-two. The sign for an optician, a pair of artificial eyes, looks back to European Surrealism, but with a pun on his medium. Others in the series pick out handwritten signs with a casual but knowing humor, like one for the firm of Prophet and Johnson.

His concerns could even run in the family. His brother directed Bonnie and Clyde, with its stylish period clothing and freeze frame of a violent death. Still, the conundrum of the personal and the professional will not go away easily, no more than for Edward Steichen at work for Condé Nast. Penn also spoke of seeking rest and serenity, but he captures a dancer thrown against a wall as if caught by a bullet. Then come dancers seemingly at rest between rehearsals, but also suspiciously close to sexual coupling. Could this, too, be all just part of the dance?

A matter of style

The Met celebrates the centennial of his birth and a massive gift from the Irving Penn Foundation, filled out with work from the existing collection. It includes the peoples of the Andes, Africa, and the South Pacific along with celebrities. It includes workers in London, Paris, and New York—along with cigarette butts that they might well have thrown away. It includes storefronts that are anything but this year's model. It includes nudes in contortions that preclude dressing for a ball. Still, they are all posing, and together with the photographer they are all putting on a show.

To be sure, Penn did not just work for Alexander Liberman at Vogue. He bought his first Rolleiflex Twin-Lens Reflex camera in 1938, while a young assistant to Alexey Brodovitch at Harper's Bazaar, and the Met sets a later purchase out front. He continued working in advertising while at Vogue, and he would probably have made much the same choices even if they were not to appear in print. The headless and legless nudes did not go over all that well at first, the cigarettes even less so. The show last year called them his personal work, and their grainy prints foretell the dark totems and darker cavities in sculpture by Bourgeois. Yet they, too, pose upright for the camera, and still later cigarette packages and flowers look like modern dancers.

The curators, Maria Morris Hambourg and Jeff L. Rosenheim, speak of "face and figure, attitude and demeanor, adornment and artifact." Even early street photography sticks to surfaces, with shop signs and shadows. Still life may come with titles like Theatre Accident and Salad Ingredients, but anyone at the scene of the accident or the kitchen has vanished for good. Portraits from the 1950s warmed up his sitters with coffee, to present them "honestly," but Richard Burton seated at a table, his arms commandingly in front, will never let his hair down. That "personal work" already included Pablo Picasso dressed as a matador, only even more stylish.

The photographer has much in common with Picasso at that. He, too, changed subjects and styles again and again—and he, too, kept returning to both, like an aging Picasso to his lovers. Penn sets his "existential portraits" from the late 1940s in a corner, for the physical presence of a confined dancer, like Jerome Robbins, or the emotional presence of a confined artist, like Marcel Duchamp. And then he repeats the device for sitter after sitter. Like any a commercial photographer, he is packaging fashion as sex and high style. Yet he is also stylizing sex as high fashion.

The nudes make that stylization obvious, with their reference to the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf. Readers found their sexuality as disturbing in a fashion magazine as their fallen breasts. Yet his travels, too, were a matter of style. A butcher or a knife grander carries off his costume and the tools of his trade very much like a model with hers. The people of Peru, New Guinea, or Dahomey flaunt their native dress and adornment. Editors at Vogue delighted in their concern for clothes, makeup, jewelry, and theater, just as in the West.

Amazingly, Penn packed all that into just a few years around 1950, although he continued working almost to his death in 2009. (He joined Vogue in 1943.) He preferred his studio to the street, even with those workers, and he took a soiled stage curtain with him as a backdrop. Its shades of gray enrich the prints, setting off the contrasts of dark and light, suits and gloves, or lipstick and flesh. He favored black and white, although the magazine more often ran his work in color, just as he favored platinum palladium prints for their tonal richness and glamour. Even among writers and artists, he preferred sitters with a sense of style—like Salvador Dalí, Tom Wolfe, or Saul Steinberg with his nose sticking out of a paper mask.

Was he bringing fashion to the detritus of ordinary life or subverting fashion all along? The Met puts him firmly in the commercial mainstream, while arguing for the diversity of his achievement. Yet it raises questions, too, only starting the heavy gloss of his fashion shoots. Is Penn alive to native cultures—or indulging in primitivism and cultural appropriation on behalf of a very western industry? What would I think if his rag and bone man in London then were a homeless person in New York now? And what if he is right, and nothing lies behind the curtain, not even a magician or (for William Butler Yeats) "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart"?

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Irving Penn ran at Pace Chelsea through March 5, 2016, his centennial exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 30, 2017. The review of Penn's "personal work" first appeared in a slightly different form in New York Photo Review.


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