Irving Penn took his time. Whether shooting still lifes or celebrities, the photographer — whose centennial is being celebrated with a lavish exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through June 30 — approached his work with a classical rigor and playful curiosity that chipped away at the walls between fine art and commerce and helped define the visual vernacular of mid-century America.
As far back as 1958, fifteen years after he shot the first of his 165 covers for Vogue, Penn was being celebrated as one of the world’s greatest living photographers in the pages of Popular Photography magazine. But Penn’s vision extended well beyond high fashion. A son of working-class New Jersey, Penn invested tradesmen and artisans with the same grace and nobility as foreign dignitaries and Hollywood icons. He photographed many of the stars and cultural icons of the twentieth century — Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Stravinsky, Louis Armstrong, Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Langston Hughes, Grace Kelly, Truman Capote, Joe Louis, Audrey Hepburn, John Updike, Carson McCullers, David Bowie, Jessye Norman, Zaha Hadid, Steve Jobs — but he also shot Peruvian peasants and New Guinean tribal chiefs. His still lifes of flowers or even cigarette butts are rendered with the same care as advertising campaigns he shot for L’Oréal.
Toward the end of his life, Penn described how he wanted his ideal viewer to experience his work: as if it were a journey “through many countries, through years of time, in the presence of lovely women and brilliant men…among inanimate objects, foods, drawings, paintings, amusements, and seductions.” All of that is on display at the Met, and Penn captured it with a coolness and restraint that revealed more vulnerability than status. His images are not nude, exactly — though he did nudes, too — but they are naked, self-consciously spare and free from distraction. For seventy years, Penn gracefully — and pioneeringly — negotiated the increasingly porous borders of art, editorial, and advertising. He did it all, basically — and with style.