Back in July I visited the Irving Penn: Centennial exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition presented a retrospective of photographs spanning his almost 70 year career, including well and lesser known images. What really surprised me is actually how little I knew about the scope of this work, and it was so refreshing to get the chance to really see into his world. Perhaps the most I knew about Penn was his celebrated and influential work at Vogue magazine, where he transformed subjects in a way no-one else had ever attempted. He was a fashion photographer and a fierce portraitist, painting people though a lens in a way no-one else ever had.
Seeing his fashion work on walls instead of printed or digitalised on a screen was a wonderful thing, and somehow encouraged me to see it differently. His fashion work I was familiar with, but it was his portraits of indigenous people in Cuzco, Peru and the small Trades portraits of urban labourers, cultural figures, voluptuous nudes and colour studies of flowers that really made me realise the breadth and depth of his work. Penn charted a path and took us all on a cultural journey with him, embedding meaning in each and every still.
His love for a simple background and minimal compositions became his signature, and his old theatre curtain backdrop was displayed proudly in the centre of one unassuming room in the centre of the exhibit. As I walked past portraits of
Penn took portraits of the worlds most famous actors, actresses, philanthropists and artists. From Nicole Kidman to Henry Moore, the Duchess of Windsor to Salvador Dali, Giacometti to T.S. Eliot, Al Pacino to Cindy Sherman and David Bowie – Penn was unknowingly documenting history and he graciously left it to us to enjoy.
The exhibition walked us through his incredible career with sensitivity and the upmost respect, allowing us to try and comprehend his outlook, passion and creative genius.
Irving Penn will continue to pave the way for creativity and possibility, reminding us just how important it is to challenge, explore, understand and document in ways we may not even deem possible. To inspire peoples perceptions, encourage their openness and instil a strong message of equality is a great thing – it’s something Penn did with incredible talent, and is needed as much in todays society as it was back then.