Frist Center for the Visual Arts through May 29
“Penn had a consistent fascination with the big themes of life and death. His representations of beauty contain indications of decay.”
by Bob Doerschuk
We remember the 1960s in color—swirling, splashy, sometimes messy, and ecstatic. As artists themselves, fashion photographers were presumed to be encouraging, capturing, and taking part in all this action.(Remember Blow-Up?)
But as Vogue pumped forth one color-drenched cover after another, its greatest contributor worked patiently in his studio. Rather than capturing young people leaping and laughing or sulking and pouting prettily, Irving Penn arranged his subjects with care. More often than not, he shot in stark black and white against blank or artfully shadowed backdrops. Sometimes his subjects were celebrities. Sometimes they weren’t people at all. Neither were they traditional still lifes but more often meticulous images of cigarette butts, muddy gloves, skulls, or baby chickens in a jar.
Penn confronted the world on his own terms. Born in 1917, trained at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Design, he worked initially as art director at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A few years later he was hired to do page design at Vogue, where he shot his first cover in October 1943. From that point he would build a powerfully influential catalog over more than half a century within and far beyond the strictures of fashion magazines.
Now open at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is the first retrospective of his work since his death in 2009. The exhibition reflects Penn’s primary interest in black-and-white format, though several images confirm his command of color as well. There’s plenty of variation within these parameters, yet, as chief curator Mark Scala points out, there’s unity as well.
“Penn had a consistent fascination with the big themes of life and death,” he says. “His representations of beauty contain indications of decay. His close-ups of things like trash found underfoot, which by any normal measure would be considered abject and beneath our attention, he puts into the limelight. He represents them as every bit as worth photographing as a beautiful woman or a piece of couture.”
The artist’s spare aesthetic, his avoidance of clutter or distraction, also touches all his work. “He creates a sense of distance and non-participation,” Scala notes. “He treats everything as a discrete object, whether or not it’s an actual person. In his photography, Penn was very attuned to the art world and especially to modernism. Of course, one of the six tenets of modernism is to get rid of all that is not essential. That quality of essentialism is evident in just about all his work. To Penn, ornamentation implied superfluity. But there’s nothing superfluous even in his fashion work.”
In his approach to portraits and fashion photography, Penn was criticized for emphasizing composition at the expense of insight. “He is well known for his graphic and sculptural sensibilities,” Scala observes. “That probably comes across more powerfully in his black-and-white work, especially in his palladium prints of physical objects, like Cigarette Butts. But look at the people who sat for him: Truman Capote, Francis Bacon. These are serious-minded people. It’s really hard to know how much the subject is in a portrait. Throughout his life, except maybe in his street photography, he was not looking for random things. He was making each person or thing into what he wanted them to be.”
Does Scala have a favorite photo among those at the Frist? “I do love Bee,” he answers, smiling. “That’s such a powerful image. It encapsulates so much of his thinking about beauty and sexuality and pain. An intimation of decay is certainly implied in the beautiful, poetic way this bee seems to be pollinating the woman’s lips. That gets me every time.”
Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is on view at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts through May 29. For more information, please visit www.fristcenter.org.