Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Houston, TX



Irving Penn, A Career in Photography


Over one-hundred vintage and master prints spanning the extraordinary career of Irving Penn, one of America's most celebrated photographers, will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston beginning March 25, 2000 through June 4, 2000. "Irving Penn, A Career in Photography" presents works from every stage of Penn's fifty-year career, from his trend setting fashion photography for Vogue magazine and his well-known work as a celebrity portraitist to travel photography and still lifes. Personal projects also highlight the exhibition, including a series of nudes made in I949-1950 and an extensive series of ethnographic studies from such places as Peru, New Guinea, and Morocco. "A Career in Photography" is one of the special exhibitions to accompany the grand opening of the Audrey Jones Beck Building of the MFAH on March 25, 2000. (left: Young Woman in a Net (Miyake Design), New York, 1993 (print April 1994), Platinum palladium photograph, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Irving Penn (1996.250) © 1993 by Irving Penn)

Peter Marzio, director of the MFAH, said, "The museum is pleased to open the Millennium Gallery of the Audrey Jones Beck Building with the work of such an important twentieth-century American photographer. Irving Penn's photographs are icons that provide a fascinating record of cultural and economic trends." (right: Chimney Sweep, London, 1950 (print 1967), Platinum palladium photograph, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Irving Penn (1996.263) © 1951 by The Condé Nast Publications, Inc.)

"A Career in Photography" was mounted in celebration of a major gift by Penn of his photographic and paper archives to The Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition is organized by The Art Institute of Chicago and curated by Colin Westerbeck, associate curator of photography. Presentation of the exhibition in Houston is coordinated by Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the MFAH. "Penn's career, with its wide-ranging subjects and varied genres, explores the complex relationship between commerce and art in our society," Tucker said. "Constantly shifting roles as a photojournalist and an artist, Penn created works of timeless beauty and character."

"Irving Penn, A Career in Photography" presents the full scope of Penn's work--from the commercial to the intensely personal. Penn balanced commercial assignments with personal projects of a contrasting nature, such as the nudes and the ethnographic studies, to maintain equilibrium in his work. Penn's public career was ultimately enriched by his constant exploration of the photographic medium and its boundaries. "A Career in Photography" presents the vast range of Penn's work organized by genre: portraiture, fashion, ethnographic studies, nudes, travel, and still life. This presentation reveals how Penn's remarkable career continuously crossed, and merged, the boundaries between art and commerce.



Penn captured the faces, and personalities, of celebrities from movie star Spencer Tracy (I948) to author Anaïs Nin (1971), gradually changing his approach to portraiture over the years. In the 1940s, Penn positioned his sitters in a narrow corner created by two bare, dull theater flats, a device of his own creation. The set both physically and psychologically confined the sitters, putting them on equal footing with Penn. Artist Marcel Duchamp (I948) relaxed into the corner, detached and confident, while American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1948) became diminished by the space. Penn developed a more direct approach by the late 1950s, photographing subjects such as Picasso (1957) and Louis Jouvet (1951) at close-range. A dramatic change in lighting can be seen in his portraits of the 1980s, which include a striking image of the artist William de Kooning (1983). Penn's manipulation of formal design elements such as light and shadow, and his ability to capture a significant gesture, expression, or mood, ultimately reveal something intriguing about his subjects. (left: Anais Nin, New York, 1971 (print February 1982), Platinum palladium photograph, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Irving Penn (1996.216) © 1971 by The Condé Nast Publications, Inc.; right: Truman Capote, New York, 1965 (print 1986), Platinum palladium photograph, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Irving Penn (1996.215) © 1965 (renewed 1993) by The Condé Nast Publications, Inc.)



The exhibition presents the fifty-year span of Penn's fashion editorial assignments, from his first Vogue cover in 1943 to recent photographs of Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake's contemporary designs. Penn's initial fame as a leading fashion photographer came in 1950 when his technique of removing models from traditional settings modernized fashion photography. He drew attention to the clothing and accessories by eliminating props and photographing models isolated against stark surfaces. Harlequin Dress (1950), illustrates the elegance and simplicity of such images. The occasional inclusion in the photographic frame of wires or cords from the set serve as a reminder that the glamour of the image is manufactured in a studio. (left: Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), New York, 1950 (print March 1979), Platinum palladium photograph, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Irving Penn (1996.236), © 1950 (renewed 1978) by The Condé Nast Publications, Inc.)

More recent highlights include provocative photographs of Issey Miyake's designs that inspired the designer in the 1980s. In his essay in the exhibition catalogue, Miyake said, "The clothes have been given a voice of their own! ... Here were my clothes, but shown in such a way that they appeared totally new to me." (Irving Penn, 43) Also on view are several of the 160 cover assignments that Penn has completed for Vogue since 1943·


Ethnographic Studies

Penn's ethnographic studies and images of anonymous people present a striking contrast to his glamorous celebrity portraits. Six Street Boys (1948) and Two Cholas (Mestizas) from Puno (1948), taken in the town of Cuzco, are among his earliest examples. Penn photographed Quechuan Indians of Cuzco in their traditional clothes within the contrived setting of a studio. Between 1964 and 1971, Penn completed seven different projects of this nature. The subjects range from New Guinea mud men to San Francisco hippies, ail carefully choreographed before the camera in makeshift studios. (left: Tambul Warrier, New Guinea, 1970 (print March 1979), Platinum palladium photograph, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Irving Penn (1996.268), © 1974 by Irving Penn, courtesy of Vogue)



Penn began photographing nudes as a private project in 1949-50 at the same time that his career as a reputable fashion photographer was established. Technically, Penn's approach to the nudes was completely different from his commercial work. He devised a technique of bleaching and re-developing each print to create high contrast areas that enhance the texture and volume of the image. The soft contours of the nudes, mostly tightly framed torsos, are the antithesis of Penn's stylized photographs of fashion models. The models are positioned seated or lying, emphasizing the weightiness of the figures, and the tangibility of the subjects.



Prior to becoming a professional photographer, Penn worked as a designer and frequently took photographs as visual note-taking. He was particularly interested in signage, and captured casual images of the landscape interspersed with lettering from signs, buildings, and other objects. Examples include Funeral Home (1941) and O'Sullivan's Heels (c.1939). Also on view are photographs such as Fisherman and Watcher (1966) from annual travel features that Penn completed for Look magazine in the 1960s.


Still Life

Penn's fascination with still life is evident in the dramatic range of photography he has produced in this genre. His first assignment as a Vogue studio photographer was a still-life cover, and over the years he completed striking still-life product shots. In the 1970s, Penn produced a startlingly inventive series of still-lifes using memento mori objects and urban detritus such as cigarette butts, decaying fruit and vegetables, and discarded clothing. He successfully challenged the traditional idea of beauty, giving dignity and nobility to common street trash with rich hues and gorgeous lighting. Ironically, these photographs act as a dark reflection of the consumer products Penn shot commercially. (left: Lion Skull, Prague, 1986 (print 1986), Gelatin silver photograph, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Irving Penn (1996.179), © 1986 by Irving Penn)


Artist's Biography

Born in 1917, Penn studied design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art under Alexey Brodovitch from 1934 to 1938. Brodovitch hired Penn as an assistant illustrator and art designer for Harper's Bazaar, and later, at Saks Fifth Avenue department store. After taking time off to paint in Mexico, Penn began working at Vogue under the direction of the art director, Alexander Liberman. Although he was hired to develop cover ideas, Penn photographed his first cover for the October 1943 issue and continues to work with the magazine today. (left: Chicks in a Jar, Mexico, 1942 (print 1983), Gelatin silver photograph, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Irving Penn (1996.160), © 1984 by Irving Penn)

From fashion photography and celebrity portraiture, Penn branched out into several different genres. He has always been dedicated to the optimal presentation of his work and he has become a master printer of such processes as platinum-palladium and selenium-toned silver gelatin. "A Career in Photography" celebrates the innovative and meticulous work of this important twentieth-century photographer. Penn's publications include Moments Preserved (1960), Worlds in a Small Room (1974) and Passage (1991).



A I92-page catalogue accompanies the exhibition. It features essays by six individuals who have collaborated with Penn at different points in his career: fashion designer Issey Miyake; editor, biographer, and art lecturer Rosamond Bernier; anthropologist Edmund Carpenter; English historian of fashion and photography Martin Harrison; and Professor Colin Eisler of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. In addition, the editor of the book, Colin Westerbeck, provides an insightful overview of Penn's career in his introductory essay.

This exhibition has been organized by The Art Institute of Chicago with the support of American Airlines. Funding in Houston has generously been provided by Charles Butt and The Chase Texas Foundation with additional support from Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. Clarke, Jeaneane B. Duncan, and John L. Wortham & Son, L.L.P.

Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

rev. 1/6/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.