Irving Penn: Photographs From the Years 1949 and 1950

at Ehlers Caudill Gallery, through June 21

The Illegal Camera: Photography in the Netherlands During the German Occupation, 1940-1945

at the Field Museum, through June 1

By Fred Camper

The fashion model in Irving Penn’s Dior Fur Scarf (Jean Patchett), New York (1950) looks down at the viewer with a fascinating mixture of sensual eye contact and haughty distance, framed with her eyebrows almost touching the top edge of the photo, her preternaturally thin black-clad body narrowing near the bottom. Together the odd composition and her disembodied placement against a pure white background intensify her gaze, as does the fact that her face is slightly out of focus: almost as if caught in a rapid movement, she seems intensely alive. Her black arm and torso meet in an inverted V to lead the eye back up to her face, which, looking down at us, leads the eye back to her figure; her whole person seems a unified form.

Penn’s photographs are about looking, about models who present themselves to be looked at. The intensely varied textures of the veil in Veiled Face (Evelyn Tripp), New York (1949) add interest to the face visible beneath it. We look down on a woman in Girl in Bed, New York (1949) lying prone so that we see only her back. But her torso and legs are clearly outlined beneath the sensuous white folds of her garment, its creases almost rhyming with those of the sheets and pillow. Her placement at the picture’s center gives it a kind of symmetry, intensifying one’s awareness of the variations in folds and in fabric textures.

The ten photographs at Ehlers Caudill are mostly newer prints of photographs originally commissioned from Penn for Vogue. Born in New Jersey in 1917, he was a graphic and advertising designer in New York in the late 1930s. After a year of painting in Mexico in 1942, he began his career in magazine photography, which continued for decades; in the 1970s he also began exhibiting in galleries, both photos from new negatives and magazine negatives reprinted. Frequently he changed the process when reprinting to produce a work worthy of contemplation in itself rather than–in his words–“a halfway house on the way to the page.” And his prints mostly heighten a central quality of fashion photography: carefully worked textures, often the result of photochemical manipulations, attract the viewer with an allover sensuality.

This is true even of subjects that are anything but fashion models: in photos not included here, Penn captured everything from third-world natives to cigarette butts. This show includes shots from a series on tradespeople Vogue once assigned him. Penn’s later platinum-palladium prints magnify the grain of his paper backdrops, giving them a smudgy texture that seems to intensify the tactile qualities of the subjects’ skin and clothing. Coating the papers with the emulsion himself, Penn produces prints whose texture seems one with the paper’s weave. And once again his subjects’ poses encourage our gaze. The eyes of a cheese merchant in Chevrier, Paris (1950) meet ours; every detail of the two men in Lorry Washers, London (1950), including the bristles on their long brooms, is as palpable as the folds of their work clothes. In these posed photos the workers seem there for us, offering the tools of their trades by way of information about their lives.

Alexander Liberman, the art director at Vogue and Penn’s longtime employer, once wrote of Penn’s “American instincts” and “pioneer spirit,” and there is a sense of wonder in many of these pictures. Perhaps looking and display are Penn’s ways of discovering the world. But these perfectly composed images are very far from candid shots. Penn once wrote of a favorite model that “her expression builds until she and the camera come alive together,” and this is the goal–extended from facial expression to the whole figure–of all ten pictures in this show.

The complete opposite of Penn’s approach can be found in most of the 75 photographs in “The Illegal Camera: Photography in the Netherlands During the German Occupation, 1940-1945,” at the Field Museum. These Dutch photographers had to hide their photographing, and the concealed cameras they wielded produced images that–their devastating subject matter aside–are the very definition of alienation. The observer in each seems cut off from the world, which recedes in images of arrests and of starved corpses. Rarely do camera and subject exhibit the perfect synchronicity of Penn’s prints; here the compositions can be a bit haphazard–the edge of a window or the leaves of a tree partly obscure the action, and the camera often seems in a different world from the subject. Even when the photographer was not shooting in secret, as in one image of a starving family, he’s often oddly distant, as if he understood that it would be wrong to display these subjects too completely. American optimism, with its faith in physical appearances, is inverted here in images that embody the very opposite of faith.

If Penn’s subjects seem to grow closer the longer one looks at them, these figures appear to recede. Often this is literally the case: German troops sent the Dutch into forced labor, or worse. In one photo Charles Breijer captured a group of prisoners from behind, their faces invisible, from a shop window, emphasizing the photographer’s inability to make contact with them. An image by Jack Dudok taken from an upper-story window shows a group of Jews being marched down a street, neatly arrayed almost in a rectangle. The street recedes, vanishing behind a building–a depth effect that underlines the group’s uncertain destination. The observer remains apart: where they go, we cannot know.

All these images of subjects leaving add up to a bleakly moving portrait of an invisible elsewhere, the destination of all that was being stolen from Holland and sent to slave labor or the crematoria. And it’s not only people who were stolen. An image by Frits Lamberts shows a group of horses impounded by the Germans, almost all of them facing away from the viewer. Four photos by Breijer, mounted together, show the Germans seizing a large machine, lifting it with a crane to deposit it beside a canal for shipment.

Of course one reason that everything in these photos seems to be receding is that the photographers could seldom place themselves in the thick of the action without being arrested; the photographers depicted their status as prisoners in their own country through these hidden views. Of four photos by Ed van Wijk mounted together, three show Germans searching the streets for civilians to arrest, and one reveals someone in hiding. In one of the street scenes a window ledge obscures a third of the frame, becoming a barrier to seeing the tiny figures in the street below. Images taken in the street often have a similar distance, as in another photo by Breijer. Taken from just above waist level, a position dictated by the camera’s concealment in a box, it shows one man selling flowers to another with a German officer in the background looking on. The camera is too distant from the action to be involving and not distant enough to give a whole cityscape, creating an almost random view except for the way the German is perfectly framed between the other two figures, asserting power over the scene.

While many of the photographs in this exhibit are striking in themselves, the show’s cumulative effect is greater than the sum of its parts. Movingly arranged by curators Veronica Hekking and Flip Bool into a narrative history in six sections (such as “Persecution of the Jews” and “Resistance”), it has short wall texts that reveal essential facts: we hear of both Dutch resistance and Dutch collaboration. Even when the photographers didn’t have to conceal their cameras, their images in the context of the whole exhibition are disturbing and often confined: the stolen horses and machines in some photos somehow seem the cause of the starving children in others. Haunting when seen up close, such subjects are perhaps most moving in an image by Menno Huizinga in which the camera holds back, maintaining a respectful distance from two boys and a mother huddled under blankets in a room with an unlit stove. The photographer seems to remind us of the impossibility of really depicting hunger, providing a poetic parallel to the enforced distance of the many concealed views here.

Two of the strongest photos end the show. W. F. Leijns took a searing shot of an open intersection when German troops unaccountably opened fire on civilians the day before liberation, murdering 22 people. We see the bodies of the dead and wounded on the street as well as people crouching behind carts, even curbs and lampposts, while others run away. Most of the bodies are pointing the same way, and the viewer intuitively triangulates their positions back to the out-of-frame building that was the source of the shooting. Never has death seemed more visible in a photograph, though here–as throughout the show–the figures’ ultimate destination is not only absent but is in a sense unrepresentable: no image could convey the essence of such an act.

Next to it is a photo by Emmy Andriesse of three children celebrating liberation. Two are using food tins as improvised drums while a third, barefoot and ragged, carries a tattered flag. This image owes much to the wonderfully imaginative ways of children; the different way each stands reminds me of Helen Levitt’s street photos of kids. And just as the children now seem free to stand as they like, inverting the situation of all the prisoners and resisters, so the photographer seems free as well. Here the camera meets the children, framing them in a composition that seems to give them space to move, as it and the children “come alive together” in freedom.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos by Irving Penn and Charles Breijer.