JTF (just the facts): A total of 24 black-and-white and color photographs, matted and framed in white and exhibited on white walls in four rooms. Thirteen of the prints are black-and-white (9 platinum-palladium and 4 gelatin silver). The other eleven prints are color (6 dye transfer, 3 pigment, 2 cibachrome). As a group, they represent every decade of the artist’s professional career, from 1939 to 2006. All are editioned in sizes that range from 7 to 52. Dimensions vary from roughly 11×20 to 23×19 inches (or the reverse). In addition, in the main room, a white vitrine contains 8 sheets of drawings on paper (6 in pencil, 1 in ink, 1 gouache.) Texts on the wall feature quotations from Penn and Alexander Liberman.
In the East room of the gallery, a video screen plays a selection of more than 40 stills in a loop. They consist of Penn advertisements (for Clinique and Issey Miyake), magazine covers and two-page spreads for Vogue, an album sleeve for a Miles Davis vinyl LP, the jacket design for his book Passage, and a selection of posters for Penn museum exhibitions around the world.
(Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Since his death in 2009, the estate of Irving Penn and his long-time New York representative, the Pace (formerly Pace/MacGill) Gallery, have adjusted ever so slightly the frame around his career. While continuing to put a spotlight on his photographs, they have added background fills that provide a more rounded picture of his artistic life. Recent shows have incorporated archival material into a bigger picture, illustrating how his youthful training in Modernist painting, drawing, sculpture, and graphics shaped his destiny.
Personal Work, in 2016 (reviewed here), featured numerous photographs from the early ‘80s onward of ascetic still lifes (animal and human bones, metal blocks, plumber’s pipes) along with half-a-dozen seldom-seen experimental self-portraits. Paintings, in 2018, exhibited for the first time his remarkable mixed-media color abstractions and collages from the 1980s-2000s, with their synthesis of the Russian Constructivists, Surrealism, Biomorphism, Klee, Morandi, Brancusi, Van Gogh, Leger, and other Modernists. Neither show argued that these works deserved to be more celebrated than his better-known photographs, but they served as a reminder of Penn’s ambitions and his repertoire. Unlike, say, Richard Avedon or Annie Leibovitz, the goals he set for himself extended way beyond fashion and portraiture.
Although there are no unfamiliar images on the walls in Penn’s latest show, Photographism, it continues the effort to plumb his archives in search of fresh perspectives. The impetus was the discovery of three sheets that he titled “Notes for Photographism.” Dated the mid-1990s—and so after publication of his retrospective volume Passage: a Work Record, published in 1991 by Callaway Editions—the notes are rudimentary sketches of some photographs in that book. Each of the boxed, reductionist drawings is titled along with the type of print. They are arranged in six rows per page, four photos to a row. For example, on the first page, he has Ripe Cheese (dye transfer) next to Paper Cup with Shadow (platinum) next to Camel Pack (platinum) next to Mud Glove (4 part).
The definition of “photographism,” alas, was never clarified by Penn. Nor is it satisfactorily explained by the press release or illustrated in the show. Two quotations on the walls from Penn don’t take us far: “I myself have always been in awe of the camera…I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.” (Did he say or write this? It isn’t sourced.) The other is even more enigmatic: “As a photographer, the realism of the world is almost unbearable to me.” His friend and boss at Condé Nast, Alexander Liberman, is also cited: “For a picture to strike memory it has to have a unique inherent secret—a visual signature. Penn is always graphic.”
Were these “notes” jotted down for an unrealized exhibition? Did “photographism” describe conditions or qualities that he believed were unique to photography? Or did he think that the world’s “almost unbearable” realism needed to be tempered by elements of graphic design before it could be properly and memorably photographed? We aren’t told.
Luckily, we have a small group of exquisite Penn prints to look at as we’re trying to figure out what he meant. Many of these were in Centennial, the retrospective organized by the Met in 2017 (reviewed here): The Tarot Reader (Bridget Tichenor and Jean Patchett) (1949, printed 1984); Black and White Vogue Cover (1950); Steinberg in Nose Mask (1966); Mouth for L’Oreal (1986, printed 1992); and Two Miyake Warriors (1998, printed 1999). Even those not included—Girl Behind Bottle (1949); Paper Cup with Shadow (1975); Gingko Leaves (1990)—are well known.
The selection spans nearly eight decades, a staggering level of quality. Fish Made of Fish (1939; print date unknown) is the earliest photograph here. Arcimboldo-like in its clever self-reflexivity, with hundreds of minnows or sardines arranged to form the international symbol of a fish, it has several aspects that became trademarks of Penn. It requires two perspectives, middle-distant and close-up, to be understood. And like many of his still-lifes of food, such as Ripe Cheese (1992), it balances allurement with revulsion. These little fish are slimy, and a nameless multitude. To stay alive we have to eat things and what is eaten usually has to die.
Eye in Keyhole (1953; print date unknown) is Penn’s critique of photography’s kinship with voyeurism. Those who peer through keyholes are branded: the black, curvaceous silhouette of the keyhole is, on close inspection, reflected back on the eyeball. A photograph can only capture what the lens itself can “see.” I have always thought this peeping tom was female. Vogue being a glamorous women’s magazine, the pale blue eyes and bunched eyelashes, and the risque scenario, brings to mind Grace Kelly, even if the picture predates Rear Window. Now, I’m not so sure the eye peering at us might not be a boy’s or girl’s.
Bedside Lamp (2006) is another masterpiece not in the Met show. It confirms that Penn’s mind was as inventive as he approached 90 as it had been decades before. The picture has every quality—simplicity, rigor, wit, elegance, a humble ordinary thing yielding unexpected revelations—that elevate Penn into the pantheon of photographers.
In his pencil drawing of the lamp, the bulb is predominant. He situates it like a wine glass on a platter. By photographing it in color, however, the bulb is no longer as striking as the rainbow emanations shimmering in arcs from the reflective hood.
That’s only one aspect, though, of the rippling effects. The lamp is metal, an updated retro-chic version of the basic sort that he might have seen in the Army during the 1940s. The illumination on this model is not pricey halide either but a hardware-bought GE bulb. He photographs the object head-on, and in so doing releases the prismatic hues so that the lamp is transformed, blooming into an industrial flower. The filament inside the white incandescence is faintly visible and unmistakably like the stamen of a lily.
The associations don’t stop there. The polished silver hood could be also be a space-age helmet or a Miyake snood worn by a pale white model, the bulb being her large head and the armature her anorexic body. Penn’s lamp even has personality, the upturned tilt suggesting an innocent curiosity similar to the desk lamp Luxo Jr., first developed as an animated comedy short for Pixar by John Lasseter in 1986.
Even though he made a sketch, and thus did some pre-production, I doubt that Penn knew that a photograph of a lamp would unite flowers and fashion. He may not have realized the metaphoric connections until he stared through the viewfinder or reviewed the negative or the print. Were the picture taken by anyone else, these overtones would not be so audible. Nonetheless, he must have heard them and he didn’t need collage or painting or CGI trickery to bring them out and make them plain. He discovered them and let them sing by scrutinizing a single thing that maybe no one else had examined so carefully before. As noted in the quotation on the wall on Pace, he saw the camera as both an instrument for making music and for dissection. Portraying with an almost maniacal focus the cousin of a tool found in any studio, including his, he was able to comment on the bright source of his art and, incidentally, on life itself. Perhaps this is what is intended by “Photographism”?
For those not content with familiar prints, the show has a slide show in the last room of his advertisements for Clinique and Issey Miyake and examples of Vogue covers and magazine spreads. (Eye in Keyhole was the introduction on the right-hand page to a story titled “A 1954 Look at 1954 Fashion.”) Although he made a handsome living for decades as a commercial photographer, only a few of his ads were in the Met retrospective, as if the estate were ashamed by this side of his output. They needn’t be. His immaculate still lifes for Clinique—of cosmetics, a bar of soap and, most of all, a backlighted medicine cabinet—were among the most seductive photographs of products many of us can remember. To watch them appear and dissolve is to admire, further and again, Penn’s ingenuity and range, and to mourn the era of glamour magazines where many of these images first appeared and that he represented. The only regret for some collectors will be that, according to the gallery, he never made saleable prints of them.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $20000 to $450000. Penn’s prints are ubiquitous in the secondary markets, with dozens of examples available every season. Prices have ranged from roughly $5000 to $460000 in recent years, with prices steadily increasing since the artist’s death in 2009.