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A Tribute to Irving Penn

Culture Watch
Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950.

Last week, “Irving Penn: Centennial” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The opening of the show dedicated to one of the world’s greatest fashion photographers dovetails with the museum’s other major fashion moment: The Met Ball, which this week will celebrate the incredible Rei Kawakubo, whose exhibition opens on TK at the Costume Institute.

“Centennial” marks the 100th anniversary of the late Penn’s birth, and is the most comprehensive exhibition of the great American photographer's work to date. Though his work is well known internationally, this in-depth exhibition will include both masterpieces and unknown prints from all his major series.

Over the course of his nearly 70-year career—six decades of which was spent at Vogue—Penn became known for his pared-down aesthetic of studio photography. But first and foremost, Penn was a fashion photographer, creating some of fashion history’s most recognizable images.

The exhibition will thoroughly explore the following series: street signs; fashion and style, with many classic photographs of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, the former dancer who became the first supermodel as well as the artist's wife; portraits of indigenous people in Cuzco, Peru; the Small Trades portraits of urban laborers; portraits of beloved cultural figures from Truman Capote, Joe Louis, Picasso, and Colette to Alvin Ailey, Ingmar Bergman, and Joan Didion; the infamous cigarette still lifes; portraits of the fabulously dressed citizens of Dahomey (Benin), New Guinea, and Morocco; the late "Morandi" still lifes; voluptuous nudes; and glorious color studies of flowers.

These subjects chart the artist's path through the demands of the cultural journal, the changes in fashion itself and in editorial approach, the fortunes of the picture press in the age of television, the requirements of an artistic inner voice in a commercial world, the moral condition of the American conscience during the Vietnam War era, the growth of photography as a fine art in the 1970s and 1980s, and personal intimations of mortality. All these strands of meaning are embedded in the images—a web of deep and complex ideas belied by the seeming forthrightness of what is represented.

All images © The Irving Penn Foundation.


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