Irving Penn: A Career in Photography

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through February 1

By Stephen Longmire

In his earliest fashion photo-graphs and portraits for Vogue, in what would now be deemed a postmodernist gesture, Irving Penn often showed the edge of the “seamless” studio backdrop, allowing electrical cords from his artificial lights to trail from the borders of his otherwise impeccably placed frames. These underdressed details in such conspicuously overdressed photographs defuse the world of style and personality Penn seems intent on conjuring–though, like the larger-than-life “portraits” he made of cigarette butts and other New York street trash in the 70s, these loose ends also boast that fashion lies not in the details but in a showstopping attitude of aplomb.

It’s Penn’s special gift to communicate that aplomb consistently in his photographs while reminding us that, beyond the camera’s frame, life is a mess. Sometimes a mouse or a beetle will creep across the still lifes he arranged for Vogue in the 50s–which resemble nothing so much as 17th-century Dutch paintings, with foodstuffs galore amassed to prove how close the sensual and aesthetic appetites can be. In the midst of his own perfectionism–which clearly knows few bounds–Penn allows, even invites these reminders of chaos and decay, of the life-taking, life-giving forces his artistry cannot control.

The Art Institute’s show of the 80-year-old artist’s lifework is as elegant as his photos but, like them, leaves a few loose ends hanging for effect. The 135 prints the photographer has donated to the museum are the centerpiece of its current Penn exhibition, but it also includes samples from the archive he donated, including test prints, tear sheets, and notes on his working habits from the past 50 years. The show begins with one of Penn’s most famous 1950 fashion shots: it shows the model he would later marry, Lisa Fonssagrives, in a painfully slender Lafaurie dress with a plump band of roses around her arm. Though the fashions have dated, the picture hasn’t. No longer the portrait of a dress, it’s a portrait of a 40-year romance, ended by the model’s recent death. Here she’s girlish but full of personality, coaxing the shy photographer out of himself. Compared to today’s fashion shots, Penn’s are both sexually restrained and formally daring. The life of elegance recorded in his early work resides in the ballroom, not the bedroom. Yet that ballroom is a visibly raw space, in this case a Parisian garret.

The grandeur of this moment is both underscored and deflated by the two formats in which the image appears, placed side by side in this exhibit. Next to the large platinum palladium print Penn made a quarter century later off this negative–he’s repeatedly finalized his favorite early photographs using this historic and exceptionally permanent printing process–is an enlarged proof sheet of the entire roll of film. Looking at this relic, never intended for public display–showing all the imperfect pictures it took to make this chosen one, complete with the photographer’s red pen editing–we envision the attic in which Penn worked, the impromptu studio he set up when Vogue art director Alexander Liberman sent him to photograph his first Paris couture collection.

It may be a general truth about photography that the more unfinished a photograph appears, the more immediate its connection seems to the time of its making. Hence the immense value of the most casual snapshots to those personally concerned with the subjects’ history, while the pictures remain meaningless to those unconcerned. Here the juxtaposition of the “permanent” platinum palladium print–itself a far cry from its original disposable form in Vogue–and the time-ridden contact sheet represents the two complementary, mutually undermining poles of this well-conceived show. Like Penn’s best work, the pairing both illuminates and subverts the idea of formal perfection.

This is a show with pleasantly few boundaries, despite wall labels that highlight Penn’s progress in three areas: fashion, portrait, and still life photography. Despite the tripartite division, examples of all three genres are hung side by side. Early and late photographs are interspersed, as are black-and-white and color prints and personal and professional assignments. The effect is to reveal the fullness and variety of Penn’s “career in photography”–a departure from the last major exhibition of his work in this country, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1990, when he made a major gift of prints to the museum. Although that exhibition (which visited Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography) also included a wide variety of images, it emphasized Penn’s portraiture and downplayed his commercial work as if it were an embarrassment–though most of his portraits of famous artists and writers were commissioned.

Penn also gifted and was exhibited by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden–his wife’s homeland–in 1990; in 1984 he had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he lives and continues working. Given all this attention, it’s hard to make sense of curator Colin Westerbeck’s assertion in the catalog that this show redresses the art world’s recent neglect of Penn, though certainly it provides a valuable opportunity to reinterpret his imposing legacy. Rising to the challenge, Westerbeck arranges Penn’s seemingly distinct genres with a freedom boldly in tune with the photographer’s own intuitions.

Four photographs hung together midway through the show illustrate its almost surreal juxtapositions and connections. The first is a reverently quiet 1982 platinum palladium print of Penn’s 1960 double portrait of Willem de Kooning and Frederick Kiesler, an enigmatic pairing that’s all the more poignant given how rarely two men occupy the same psychological space in photographs. Kiesler appears to be dozing, but the painter is in his prime, bracingly well dressed and handsome in a starched shirt and pin-striped pants. Add a jacket and tie and he could pass for a banker or an ambassador; as it is, he’s a vision of self-possessed calm. A smoldering cigarette burns its way toward his hand, which supports his face and frames his remarkably penetrating stare.

Immediately to the right of this photograph–in a far more discordant pairing–is a large color print of Penn’s 1981 close-up of a woman putting a contact lens in her eye. The colors in the dye-transfer print are vibrant–red nails, gold mascara, a blue lens about to intensify an already blue eye. Everything about this image, like the act of inserting a contact lens, is in your face–looking at it, it’s hard not to blink. In terms of dates, processes, and styles, this photo has little in common with the de Kooning-Kiesler portrait; the only real link is the eye. Part of the same sequence is a 1983 portrait of de Kooning wearing the cap and weathered complexion of a seaman; his head mimics the attitude and gaze of the human skull featured just to its left, Wide Skull (1993). There is considerable irony in this arrangement, though whether the irony is Penn’s or Westerbeck’s is hard to say.

Such consistently jarring pairings enhance the show, highlighting the juxtapositions of the photographer’s career. Unquestionably the strangest and most discussed body of Penn’s work is his so-called ethnographic photography, dating primarily from the 60s, though it began with a trip he made to Peru in 1948 on assignment for Vogue. There Penn photographed the native Quechua people against the dated studio backdrops of a local portrait photographer who still employed the equipment and styles of the late 19th century. Penn’s results are part fashion, part portraiture, and part still life–a hybrid as disarming as it is disconcerting. Someone definitely is being objectified, but it’s hard to say whether it’s the subject or the voyeuristic viewer.

Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter writes in the exhibition catalog how funny he finds this penchant of Penn’s, effectively absolving the photographer of any charge of political incorrectness. Penn’s project eventually took him to New Guinea, Morocco, and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. This last location, where the Grateful Dead were among Penn’s subjects, may be the funniest of all–and the most exotic. Like an anthropologist, Penn is always interpreting his home culture even in his fashion shots, though he does so in a roundabout way. After 1948 his ethnographic images were shot against a modern studio backdrop, which he transported wherever he went as if it were the constant, the control, in his strange experiment. Are these fashion images, featuring local costumes? The natives are always dressed to the hilt. Is Penn boasting that he can make anyone fashionable, given the right setting? Or is he insinuating, by threatening to pull the veil of fashion aside, how sheer it is? With these rebukes to Western notions of fashion, Penn somehow manages to revive the tired genre. He shows how regional fashion is, all the while treating his own fashion-making process as a universal. It’s a good joke–on all concerned.

Penn defies the traditional separation between an artist’s commercial and “creative” work, challenging the viewer to discover a distinction. Of course the difference is obvious when a product is being advertised, but much less so when beauty and decay–which this show makes clear are Penn’s ongoing themes–are at stake. Perversely, beauty and entropy are the values of commerce as well as art. “They’re chasing us back to the fine arts,” Penn lamented at a gathering of professional photographers in the late 60s, when the magazines so many of them had worked for fell into decline. His inversion of the usual hierarchy of personal and professional is typical of his tongue-in-cheek defiance. If all commercial studios produced work of Penn’s wit and finesse, we could abandon the distinction entirely.

Penn entered the gallery world as it embraced photography in the 70s with relative ease, though his series of gifts to major museums suggests he’s eager to guarantee his place in art history. He needn’t worry. The few additions this show makes to Penn’s published repertoire, and the archive that comes with his donation, confirm that he’s conducted himself with an artist’s vision and integrity despite the dizzying demands of the marketplace. Indeed, it shows how he found his inspiration and his themes by toying with the demands his profession made on him. It’s an impressive lesson.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Frederick Kiesler and Willem De Kooning”; Egg Seller With His Son”; “Wide Skull”.