Irving Penn

Discussion in '35mm Cameras' started by Alan Browne, Jun 19, 2005.

  1. Alan Browne

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    The Beautiful Peoples
    At the National Gallery, Irving Penn's Culturally Rich and Famous

    By Andy Grundberg
    Special to The Washington Post
    Sunday, June 19, 2005; N01

    The first picture one encounters upon entering the National Gallery's
    new photography exhibition, "Irving Penn: Platinum Prints," is a 1948
    view of a photographer's studio in Peru.

    Titled "Cuzco Photographer With Woman Wearing Shoes," it shows a rural
    Indian of Incan descent sitting for her portrait. Behind her is a
    painted backdrop of an idealized scene dominated by a colonial hacienda.
    In front of her stands a tripod-mounted camera and, bent over it in
    silhouette, the photographer whose studio this is.

    As unlikely as it seems, this anonymous Cuzco studio photographer might
    well be the alter ego of Irving Penn, who spent the bulk of his
    illustrious career working in New York for the fashion magazine Vogue.

    The Cuzco photographer unpretentiously earns his living from his craft.
    He finds unexpected beauty in unlikely subjects while modestly allowing
    his subjects to present themselves directly to the camera. He collapses
    the distinctions between "naive" and "sophisticated" cultures,
    complicating our responses to his work. He does this, paradoxically, by
    placing his sitters in a controlled -- and in Penn's case oftentimes
    confining -- environment. He loves control because it allows him to
    reach for the ideal of beauty.

    You can almost see Penn reaching for the ideal throughout the range of
    subjects in his show, which includes elegant models wearing the latest
    Paris fashions, tribal peoples decorated with masks and mud,
    full-figured nudes, literary lions and celebrated artists, urban
    tradesmen, street trash, and still lifes made of metal blocks, skulls
    and bones.

    At Vogue, Penn long played Plato to Richard Avedon's more mercurial
    Aristotle. Avedon sought to comprehend humanity by acquiring and sorting
    evidence of its manifold existence; beauty to him was an end, not a
    given. Penn seems to have started with a sure sense of what beauty is
    and then embarked on finding it in unusual places, from the fierce
    visages of warriors in New Guinea to cigarette butts and smashed paper
    cups plucked from the pavement of Fifth Avenue. One could even say his
    famous fashion images are essentially potboilers: What could be easier
    for Penn than making beautiful images of beautiful women wearing
    beautiful clothes?

    "Irving Penn: Platinum Prints," organized by Sarah Greenough, is
    occasioned by the artist's gift to the National Gallery of 102
    photographs and collages, most of which are on view in the exhibition.
    The prints represent Penn's labor of love since the mid-1960s, when he
    decided that conventional printing, both in reproduction on the magazine
    page and with commercially made enlarging papers, did not do full
    justice to his work. Working weekends in his darkroom away from the
    city, he resurrected a process used by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and
    Edward Weston early in their careers but later abandoned as anti-modernist.

    To make a platinum print requires brushing a solution of metallic salts
    (platinum, mainly, but also mixes of palladium and iridium) onto a sheet
    of watercolor paper, drying it, and exposing the dried sheet to a
    negative the same size as the final image. Penn thus was required to
    make enlarged negatives of his best work, discover the right formula of
    metals for each image, and often to coat, expose and develop the paper
    multiple times to build up the density to a level that gave the print a
    full range of tones. Skill and persistence are required in equal measure.

    To say that the results can be exquisitely beautiful is almost an
    understatement. Looked at closely, the pictures reveal details unseen
    when they were published in Vogue, like the texture of the fabric in a
    Balenciaga dress worn in 1950 by Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, a model as well
    as the photographer's late wife. The ratty rug Penn used as a device in
    his great 1947 portrait of George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken appears
    even rattier in platinum than in a conventional silver print.

    The effect is perversely delicious.

    Lingering modernist purists may protest that these platinum prints look
    less like photographs than . . . well, prints. They have a toothy
    appearance and brown tonality that brings to mind photogravures of the
    sort that Stieglitz published in his magazine Camera Work in the early
    20th century. A few seem literally inky, in particular a heavily
    shadowed print of "Rock Groups," a Summer of Love portrait of the bands
    Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead. But in an age
    when digital printing has made variety the spice of contemporary
    photography, the platinum look seems neither objectionable nor
    particularly radical.

    The same could be said of the selection of images on view. Those
    familiar with Penn's career, either from retrospective exhibitions in
    1984, 1990 and 1997 or from books such as 1991's "Passage: A Work
    Record," will find themselves among friends here, since most of the
    pictures can be counted among the photographer's greatest hits. About
    half of them also can be found in the 120-print collection of "master
    images" that Penn donated to the Smithsonian's American Art Museum and
    National Portrait Gallery in 1987. (The platinum prints were produced in
    limited editions of from four to 65 copies, which accounts for the
    duplications.) There's no evidence in the show of Penn's great work in
    color, of course, unless you count the platinum prints that were made
    from color negatives.

    The National Gallery's rationale for its selection is impeccable,
    however. Each of the 85 prints in Penn's donation (70 of which are on
    view) is represented in partial form in one or more of the 17 collages
    known as "Platinum Test Materials" that the artist fashioned in 1989.

    These collages, 12 of which conclude the exhibition, are essentially
    assemblies of what darkroom workers call test strips, small fragments of
    pictures used to sample the possibilities of exposure and development.
    Print quality ranges widely in the individual samples, some being so
    pale they seem faded, indicating that Penn's interests lay elsewhere.

    In her essay for the exhibition's catalogue, curator Greenough suggests
    that these collages are interesting in part because of the new
    relationships they set up among pictures. Masks, for example, figure
    prominently in one that includes both New Guinea mud men and the
    cartoonist Saul Steinberg. More important, she suggests, the collages
    are fragmentary and imperfect, thus marking a new stage in Penn's
    lifelong quest for perfection. "By embracing the vagaries of time,
    aging, and decay," she writes, "Penn made the 'Platinum Test Materials'
    meditations on the life of art."

    There are other ways of interpreting these strange objects. For one,
    they have the effect of creating new pictures cropped from larger ones.

    Janis Joplin appears solo, severed from her Big Brother band. George
    Balanchine also does a solitary turn without his distracting colleagues
    from the Ballet Society. Also, seeing Penn's handwritten notations on
    the margins of some test images, taken together with a dismal lack of
    strong tonalities in many of them, serves to remind us how difficult a
    feat it was to make the final prints so convincing.

    As if to underline this thought, several finished prints are hung among
    the collages in which they are found as fragments. If it was an overall
    goal of the show to make the platinum test materials seem important as
    autonomous works of art, this was a bad idea. But it should not detract
    our attention from the very good idea of adding the art of one of our
    greatest living photographers to the collection of one of our most
    respected museums.

    Irving Penn: Platinum Prints will remain on view in the photography
    galleries of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Fourth
    Street at Constitution Avenue NW, through Oct. 2. For information call
    202-737-4215. The gallery is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5
    p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The exhibition is supported by Merrill
    Lynch, the Trellis Fund, and the Ryna and Melvin Cohen Family Foundation.
    © 2005 The Washington Post Company
    Alan Browne, Jun 19, 2005
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