Exhibition route

"Irving Penn, masterpieces from the MEP collection"

First works and trips

Irving Penn - Cuzco Children 1948 MEP Collection ©Conde Nast

Irving Penn attended the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art and in 1936 joined the "Design Laboratory" founded by Alexey Brodovitch. After graduating in 1938, he became art director for Junior League Magazine and the Saks Fifth Avenue department store in New York. Irving Penn buys his first camera, a Rolleiflex, with which he trains by exploring urban space. Nineteenth-century storefronts, billboards and handwritten advertising signs particularly caught his eye. In 1942, at the end of a trip to Coyoacán, Mexico, accompanied by his first wife, Nonny Gardner, undertaken to devote himself to painting, Irving Penn decided to destroy his paintings and published in the surrealist magazine VVV what he considered to be his first "serious" photograph.


Portraits 1947 - 1996

Irving Penn - Picasso (1 of 6), Cannes, 1957 MEP Collection © The Irving Penn Foundation

In 1947 Alexander Liberman, art director of Vogue magazine, asked Penn to make a series of portraits of celebrities, many of them European artists who had gathered in New York in the post-war years. In his studio, equipped with lighting that mimicked natural light, Penn created a simple set with two partitions forming an angle, or used an old, discarded carpet on the floor or covering objects as the only prop. In this way he creates a timeless place that leaves the subject free to occupy the space. Penn had his models pose in a situation that was at first uncomfortable, but that pushed them to expose their inner nature. Penn did not raise his voice, but listened attentively. His positive, receptive and modest attitude put the subjects at ease. He observed them closely, forming an opinion about their character, their behavior and their relationship to their own fame. Thus the image took shape little by little in his mind. The portraits of artists, writers, and other powerful personalities that Penn made for Vogue over a period of sixty years, in his New York studio or during his travels in Europe, constitute a veritable encyclopedia of twentieth-century cultural history. The pure style of these portraits and their profound intensity made him famous.

Nudes 1949 - 1967

Irving Penn - Red-Lacquered Lid, New York, 1994 MEP Collection © The Irving Penn Foundation

During the summer of 1949, Irving Penn undertook, between two commissions, a very personal series around the female nude. He chose his subjects from among professional models for painters or sculptors. Framing the bodies as closely as possible - without ever showing the faces - he celebrated their sculptural beauty. He then subjected his negatives to experimental printing techniques, bleaching and redeveloping his prints until he achieved diaphanous hues that always varied from print to print. With this project, Penn approached photography and the female body in ways that went against the canons of the time and the conventions demanded of magazine pages. This work would not be published or brought to public attention for several decades. His inventiveness is equally evident in his work on the Dancers' Workshop of San Francisco in 1967, in which he does not attempt to make exact sense of specific choreography, but rather a freer interpretation of bodies in motion, performing only to be photographed.

Fashion and beauty 1949 - 2007

Caroline Trentini in Chanel Haute Couture, New York 2007 MEP Collection ©Conde Nast

During Irving Penn's long career at Vogue, fashion was an essential part of his work. In the 1940s, he used white paper backdrops to create stunning compositions that emphasized and magnified the shape of dresses. His style is sober and concise and moves away from the busy backdrops that had defined the genre before the war. In addition to shooting in the New York studio from 1950 to 2007, Penn often traveled to Paris to photograph the haute couture collections for the magazine. In 1950, he found a theater curtain that he used as a backdrop for many years to transform a variety of styles into timeless images. Penn worked with some of the greatest models of his time, including what was considered the first supermodel in history, Lisa Fonssagrives. She was his wife from 1951 until her death in 1992. For Alexander Liberman, artistic director of Vogue magazine, she was the subject of Penn's greatest photographs.

Still life 1947 - 2007

Irving Penn - Cigarette #37, New York, 1972 MEP Collection © The Irving Penn Foundation

In his still life practice, Irving Penn demonstrates great creativity in staging inanimate objects, with a constant determination to remove the superfluous. From his earliest work for the covers of Vogue in 1943 to his latest personal series in 2007, he produces images that reveal his acute awareness of the materiality and symbolism of objects in fully controlled compositions. He frequently includes references to the vanities of ancient art and the memento mori, which gives his images a timeless power and presence. He is also interested in subjects that may seem at first glance trivial, banal or even repulsive, such as cigarette butts or crushed chewing gum, which he magnifies in sumptuous platinum-palladium prints. Thus, by exploring new subjects with new techniques, he has continued to push the creative limits of the photographic medium.


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