The 2017 “Irving Penn: The Centennial” exhibition in Paris is a guaranteed highlight of the Grand Palais’ autumn season programme. Marking the centenary birth of Irving Penn (1917-2009), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Réunion des musées nationaux– Grand Palais, in collaboration with The Irving Penn Foundation, organized one of the most comprehensive retrospective since Penn’s death, and the first of its kind in France.
Irving Penn is regarded as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. To many, he is most well-known for his portraits of notable societal figures. However, as a ‘Documenting Fashion’ student, I see him as inseparable from 20th century fashion; his name alone conjures up some of the most iconic images in fashion studies. His celebrated fashion photos taken during his time at Vogue including Tobacco on Tongue (1951), Balenciaga Mantle Coat (1950), and The Twelve Most Photographed Models (1947), are all on display in this exhibition.
This retrospective looks back over Penn’s seventy-year career “with more than 235 photographic prints all produced by the artist himself, as well as a selection of his drawings and paintings.” The exhibition is laid out on two levels, covering a range of genres and themes that were of great importance to Penn’s career. The ground floor starts with his still life and early street photographs taken using his first Rolleiflex in 1938, and spans the 40s to early 60s-era, including his early days at Vogue. The portfolios of Cuzco indigenous people, small trade series and classical ‘portraits of personalities’ are all covered in this period. The upper floor showcases his advertising and personal projects. These ranged from his series of nudes, to cigarette butts and four major series of other detritus, titled: Street Material, Archaeology, Vessels and Underfoot.
The exhibition is successful in showing all these facets of Penn’s career and his wide-ranging interest in subject matter. But truth be told, all these genres and themes can be split into two major categories: objects and humans. And in my opinion, his most interesting photos are still the ones he takes of people, whether it is of fashion models, celebrity portraits, or indigenous villagers. These photographs reveal his instinctive grasp of material, weight, pattern and the tactile quality of a garment. Paired with his knack for posing subjects, Penn’s photographs of people are both visually and psychologically more interesting for viewers.
The Irving Penn centennial exhibition was originally shown this year between April and July at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Lucky for those in Europe, the same show will be exhibiting at the Grand Palais in Paris until the 29th of January, 2018, before heading to Germany and Brazil.
By Lily Mu
All photos authors own