Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Irving Penn's Magnificent Images

The photographer himself, Irving Penn, the master of portraits and fashion
At The Metropolitan Museum of Art we also saw Irving Penn: Centennial that's on until July 30. It is 100 years since the birth of the American photographer who died in 2009.

One of his earlier portraits of a chef
I first became acquainted to Penn's photographs through Vogue magazine and thought they were so elegant and beautiful even if the subjects were very simple. Actually there was nothing tricky about them -- it was very straight forward but how they were photographed made them quietly sophisticated and gorgeous.

It was pictures of food in a still life arrangement -- either the ingredients artfully placed, or the finished dish, but hardly garnished or decorated with anything, or models posed with as little distraction as possible to illustrate the article.

The exhibition at The Met features only 150 of Penn's photographs, though it features many of his earlier works that I was unaware of. He started taking portraits of all kinds of people in different jobs from a balloon seller to fireman, waiter, chef, blast furnace tender and butcher, window washer and chamois seller.

Smouldering image of Marlene Dietrich
He hated smoking, and when his mentor Alexey Brodovitch died of lung cancer, Penn became even more aware of the cigarette butts lying all over the streets of New York and decided to use them as subjects for a series of photographs.

They are used butts, some fished out from the streets so they are dirty, and yet Penn makes them look like dangerously beautiful objects. It's so ironic that it makes them arresting images. But after looking at several of them you get the idea and want to move on.

His portraits of people are amazing -- he put his subjects in a tight corner -- Truman Capote, Marcel Duchamp, Spencer Tracy, Igor Stravinsky, and Salvador Dali. Other fantastic portraits include Marlene Dietrich, Cecil Beaton, Pablo Picasso, and Audrey Hepburn.

Penn was famous for his fashion shoots
Penn's studio was in a building with no water and electricity but had natural light that he preferred using. Because of his fame, people did not hesitate to have their portraits taken by him. You can see the backdrop he used for his photo shoots too, and some visitors take selfies with it.

He was also adventurous in his travels, and in the show there is video footage of him in Morocco setting up a basic tent and getting locals in their native dress to have their portraits taken by him.

In another he took pictures of indigenous people in Papua New Guinea. Again he kept everything simple so that the viewer only focuses on the subject, making them arresting images.

It's too bad there aren't more photographs to look at -- I could look at dozens more, particularly of his fashion shoots and still lifes of things like flowers, but alas the exhibition was soon over...

A backdrop he used to use for portraits
Irving Penn: Centennial
Until July 30, 2017
Gallery 199
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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