When you spend 60 years making pictures every day, you get pretty damn good at it. Take Irving Penn, the son of Russian Jews from Plainfield, New Jersey, who started as a department store art director and ended up one of the preeminent photographers of the 20th century. Penn collaborated with Vogue for more than half a century, but his oeuvre goes way beyond fashion.
A current exhibition on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the fullest retrospective of Penn’s work to date. The show spans the photographer’s early 1940s fashion shots to his singular, sparsely designed celebrity portraits and later studio work with indigenous peoples in New Guinea, Peru, and Africa. Also included are Penn’s lesser-known commercial images made for companies like L’Oréal. His still lifes of discarded cigarette butts and deli trash gleaned from the sidewalks of 1970s New York are a triumph of modernist cool.
Penn, who was 92 when he died in 2009, was also the first studio photographer to consistently employ the use of a plain white backdrop as a device for emphasizing the physical and emotional presence of his subjects..
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