Short of a full-dress redux of Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball, few events appear less appropriate for modern-day New York than “Irving Penn: Centennial,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest shot at a tourist-friendly blockbuster. Lavish, elegant, and congenially retro, the exhibition consists mainly of black-and-white photographs of mid-century icons — among them Marlene Dietrich, Cecil Beaton, and Richard Burton. Were Penn alive today, he’d likely be flummoxed at the celebreality of Kylie, Kanye, and Kim.
If certain artists are greatly appreciated in their time, others may be, posthumously, appreciated too much. This is the case with Penn, the photographer whose studio-based pictures gave the original Mad Men era its darkly simmering appearance, which presently radiates little heat. For over six decades, Penn’s association with Vogue and corporate giants like General Foods kept his simplified graphic style squarely in the public eye. No matter where you looked, the photographer’s handsome commercial photos stared out from magazine covers and printed Jell-O ads. For a similar sense of image saturation, consider the everywhereness of food porn.
Best known for his fashion photography, Penn boasted a repertoire that ran the gamut of conventional emulsion-on-paper genres. These included youthful snaps of odd-looking store signs, images of gorgeously angular women in impossible hats, modernist-inspired pileups of food, theatrically grave portraits of creative greats, a visual taxonomy of regular working stiffs, travel essays that aspired to ethnography, headless but curvy nudes, and, finally, various kinds of still-lifes of found objects, including cigarettes, bones, bottles, and food containers, among other studiedly gritty detritus.
Yet throughout his long career, and regardless of subject matter, the objects of Penn’s attention received a uniformly classicizing treatment. For the Plainfield, New Jersey–born photographer, making pictures wasn’t so much about capturing the way real things and people actually looked, à la his more documentary-minded colleagues Henri Cartier-Bresson and William Klein. Instead, it was fundamentally about repeating a set of studio-bound, eye-pleasing patterns — i.e., folding the rough edges of objects and sitters neatly into an austere, stylized, four-sided envelope.
The Met’s current retrospective is the most comprehensive to date of Penn’s oeuvre (the institution put on two exhibitions of the artist’s work previously, one in 1977, the other in 2002). It features more than two hundred photographs spanning seventy years of camerawork, from the early street photography he made as a tyro shutterbug while working as an assistant to legendary Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch to his geometrically inspired campaigns for companies like Issey Miyake and L’Oréal in the 1980s and ’90s. Like the 2002 show, “Centennial” is preceded (or perhaps propelled) by a promised gift to the museum. Consisting of a large cache of prints tendered by the Irving Penn Foundation, both the donation and the show contrive a reverential argument for the photographer’s importance on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Alas, in art as in life, good looks aren’t everything.
Penn was blessed as well as cursed by his ability to churn out product on commission for a multitude of clients. A frustrated oil-on-canvas artist who became a photographer, he occupies that awkward subaltern cultural space — along with few chefs and even fewer reviewers — Baudelaire generally characterized as “the refuge of all failed painters.” Rather than endure what the exhibition catalog calls “the lonely life of the imagination,” Penn excelled at Vogue, where he began as a cover designer but quickly graduated to photographer, precisely because the magazine demanded efficient collaboration and a negotiated knack for applying creative approaches to real-world design problems. Though Penn eventually complained to a group of students that his broodingly spare commercial work had become “very slick and suspect,” it’s unlikely he would have become a celebrated artist without schlepping for years at a fashion magazine.
Part of the problem in assaying Penn, of course, is that there is no clear division between his commercial and his artistic work. Like the acorn, his magazine output contains both the seed and the oak of his photographic labor. At the Met, his recognizably clean, meticulous style comes through in black-and-white photographs of models wearing Dior dresses and puffy Balenciaga sleeves. In the late ’50s, he transferred that same reductivist approach to magazine portraits of the culture’s new postwar royalty — actors, writers, artists, and film directors. His most famous works by far, these images still thrill owing to the photographer’s spartan economy of means.
Penn literally cornered famous subjects like Spencer Tracy, Salvador Dalí, and Igor Stravinsky between two stage flats to amplify the drama of their poses. In other pictures, he underscored the artificial nature of the studio by throwing old carpet over boxes on which his sitters sat or leaned. One print in the show features a fortysomething Alfred Hitchcock perched on a carpeted promontory like some overstuffed British relative of the mynah bird. Another presents a weirdly vulnerable image of Joe Louis: Pinned into a corner, the champ’s narrow shoulders and humongous feet call attention not just to his rare physical imperfections but to the foreshortening of the photographer’s lens.
But if this is Penn at his best, much of his other output had serious trouble sustaining the same solemn humanist note associated with his so-called “existential portraits.” In hindsight, his repeatedly cramped allusion to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit went pear-shaped when he also used it to animate The Twelve Most Photographed Models, New York — a lineup of exquisite human mannequins that ran in Vogue in 1947. Ditto for the pictures of butchers, bakers, window washers, and mailmen Penn equivocally pegged “Small Trades” in 1950.
Later portraits of Peruvian highlanders in indigenous garb and naked African girls in the guise of Dahomeyan Amazons only served to emphasize the limitations imposed by Penn’s classical blinders — he posed bare-chested black adolescents in highly patterned headdresses and skirts, in echo of an infamous event at Paris’s 1899 World’s Fair. Unlike other photographers of the era — his more socially engaged competitor Richard Avedon, for instance — Penn let his hard-won stylization get in the way of fully humanizing his subjects. Those miscues, along with his triumphs, are now on view in the Met: Pictures that once seemed the definition of striking and fresh have, in time, turned decorative, tasteful, vintage.
Because few photographers established the rules for fashion photography like Penn, the temptation exists to apply dusty qualifiers like “eternal,” “ageless,” and “timeless” to these prints. But a great many of his photographs, though iconic, appear well past their sell-by date. “Irving Penn: Centennial” is likable enough but needs a fresh critical look. In my view, it’s hard to get past Penn’s buttoned-up classicism and his ill-timed reprise of portraiture uncomplicated by ugliness, controversy, or period politics without venturing the following thought — this is art according to one very successful dead white male.
Irving Penn: Centennial
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through July 30