The photographic exhibition Irving Penn, Resonance, is showing at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy until December 31, 2014. As the largest retrospective devoted to Penn’s photographic works in Venice, the exhibit’s collection holds 130 photographs from the 1940s through the mid-1980s and consists of platinum prints, gelatin silver prints, dye transfer prints and negatives.
Irving Penn was one of the most influential and prolific photographers and master printers of both black and white, and color photography in the 20th century. With a career that spanned more than half a century, the photographer worked on artistic and professional projects across many genres – fashion, portraiture, still life, and ethnography, among others. His method fused a balance of flawless elegance and composed simplicity.
In his work, modernism was not automatically in conflict with the past, and the manner in which he exerted control throughout the photographic process, from the studio to printing, enables viewers today to derive an understanding of his continuous reexamination of time, life and its delicateness.
Penn once said that he tried to photograph his subjects at rest, “in a state of serenity.” His talent was evident in the compositional clarity and in the depth and luminosity of his carefully executed platinum prints. He had an eye of a still life artist, with shrewd attention to detail.
He began working at Vogue magazine in 1943, and while numerous radical transformations occurred in the fashion world over the decades, Penn’s style stayed constant. His images almost looked as if they defied fashion. Instead of spontaneity, there was stillness to Penn’s portrait subjects and models. The subjects were usually shown complete, with the exception of several close-up portraits that cut the heads off at the forehead, and only because he necessitated it. He had “control of an art director fused with the process of an artist,” according to Merry A. Foresta, who was the co-organizer of a 1990 Penn retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery.
Initially, trained in design and painting, Penn decided to classify himself as a photographer, and even scraped paint off his early canvases so they could function as backgrounds to his images. As a master printer, not content with adhering to conventional printing, he was also willing to experiment. In one series, he bleached his nudes to remove skin tones and create a rough chiaroscuro effect. The technique makes his model’s flesh seem harsh and unforgiving. It was the antithetical notion to the then-prevailing idea of physical beauty, as if to sabotage to his professional purpose as a commercial photographer.
Most known for his models and celebrity images in glossies such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Irving Penn’s photographs appeared on over 150 Vogue covers. However, the photographer also concentrated on more personal works such as sidewalk detritus, cigarette butts and bleached animal skulls. These works, presented in platinum, were exhibited in a 1977 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Penn also created black and white portraits of leading writers, performers and artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. He concentrated on producing photographs intended to be viewed as art.
In the Venice retrospective, these portraits are shown alongside Penn’s ethnographic photographs of the indigenous people of the Republic of Dahomey, and the men of Morocco and the aborigines of New Guinea. The relationship of the works strongly emphasizes the briefness of human existence, whether Irving Penn’s subject was famous, unfamiliar, resourceful or prosperous.
Visually striking, the retrospective connects unrelated subject matter with Penn’s most iconic works to inspire dialogue with museum viewers. The exhibit starts with Penn’s Small Trades, images made in the United States, England and France during the 50s – street vendors, rag dealers, newspaper men, among others. Penn was certain that the trade of these groups would disappear in time, and the photographer immortalized them in the studio, and preserved them in print.
In 1990, the New York arts critic, Richard Woodward cited that when Irving Penn broke away from the “dictates of fashion” in glossies, his prints were appreciated because of “a remarkably undivided conscience” and that Penn was a constant in his practices, “no breaks, only different subjects.” Venice’s Palazzo Grassi exhibit of Irving Penn gives the viewer the opportunity to appreciate the genius and the work of a brilliant photographer who sought subjects and challenged artistic principles through the art of photography.
By: Dawn Levesque