Irving Penn

Reading the Photographer through His Work

September 27, 2017By Heidi EllisonArchive, Exhibitions
“Black and White Fashion with Handbag (Jean Patchett)” [1950). © The Irving Penn Foundation

Irving Penn (1917–2009) is one of the generation of postwar photographers who made their name in fashion but went on to conquer other photographic genres. The Grand Palais is now presenting a major retrospective (which originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) of his work to celebrate the centennial of his birth.

Even those who know little about Penn’s biography can learn much about the man just by looking at the photos in this exhibition. The fashion images reveal a brilliant eye for graphic patterns and a sharp wit, while the portraits show a talent for capturing personality. The studies of people of other cultures bring out his respectful humanism, and the still lifes his search for perfection and his great curiosity. Even his nudes show him to be a cultured man who knows his art history.

His early still lifes and photos of the street are wonderful evocations of human life with no actual humans present: the shadows of a key and gun (from a shop sign) and a man on the sidewalk, for example, or a finished meal on a table with a crumpled napkin, already abandoned by the diner.

Penn, who work