Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Irving Penn: Platinum Prints

Irving Penn
Picasso at La Californie, Cannes, France, 1957
platinum/palladium print, 1974
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Irving Penn
Copyright 1960 by Irving Penn, Courtesy of Vogue

Irving Penn: Platinum Prints was on view June 19 through October 2, 2005 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. DC. It was the first major retrospective examination of renowned American photographer Irving Penn’s platinum prints. The National Gallery of Art is the sole venue for the exhibition.

A meticulous craftsman, Penn (born 1917) has experimented extensively with platinum/palladium printing since the early 1960s, transforming his celebrated photographs into independent works of art with remarkably subtle, rich tonal ranges and luxurious textures. In 2002 and 2003 Penn gave the National Gallery of Art 17 unique collages known as the Platinum Test Materials and 85 platinum/palladium prints as well as archival material. Spanning most of Penn’s innovative career from the 1940s to the late 1980s, this important collection represents all of Penn’s genres: from fashion photographs and still lifes to portraits of some of the 20th century’s most celebrated figures—Pablo Picasso, David Smith, and Colette, for example—and studies of anonymous individuals from around the world. Organized by the National Gallery of Art, the exhibition presents the collages and prints together for the first time.

The Exhibition

The exhibition presented works from all of Penn’s genres organized chronologically, including portraits of famous celebrities and unknowns, fashion and ethnographic studies, and still lifes, along with the Platinum Test Materials collages.

"Igor Stravinsky, New York , 1948"

"Jean Cocteau, Paris, 1948"

Portraits: Widely celebrated for his portraits, Penn adeptly utilizes formal design elements to reveal the character and personality of his subjects. The exhibition included many of Penn’s iconic portraits, including

Colette, Paris (1951; platinum/palladium print, 1976), and Steinberg in Nose Mask, New York (1966; platinum/ palladium print, 1976). In the 1940s, Penn positioned his sitters in a small corner space made of two studio flats, a device of his own creation; one example on view was

Marcel Duchamp, New York (1948; platinum/palladium print, 1979). Penn developed a more direct approach by the late 1950s, photographing subjects at close range, such as Picasso at La Californie, Cannes, France (1957; platinum/palladium print, 1974).

Fashion Studies: Examples of Penn’s fashion studies, a steady part of his editorial assignments from Vogue for more than 50 years, was also on view as part of the collection. Penn came to fame immediately after World War II by presenting his models in simple settings, free from the theatricality that had characterized earlier fashion photographs. Many of the works were of his wife, his favorite model, seen in

Irving Penn
Woman with Roses (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn in Lafaurie Dress), Paris, 1950
platinum/palladium print, 1977, 55.1 x 37 cm (21 11/16 x 14 9/16)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Irving Penn
Copyright 1950 by Les Editions, Condé Nast S.A.

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Irving Penn
Cocoa-Colored Balenciaga Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950
platinum/palladium print, 1979, 50.2 x 49.9 cm (19 3/4 x 19 5/8)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Irving Penn
Copyright 1950 (renewed 1978) by Condé Nast Publications Inc.

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Irving Penn
Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950
platinum/palladium print, 1980, 50.2 x 49.9 cm (19 3/4 x 19 5/8)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Irving Penn


Ethnographic Subjects: In 1948, after a fashion project in Lima, Peru, Penn flew to the town of Cuzco in the Andes. The Quechuan Indians he found there so captivated him that on impulse he rented the local photographer’s studio. The exhibition included

Cuzco Children (1948; platinum/palladium print, 1978) among the works on view from that famous encounter. Fifteen years later, Penn would again take up ethnographic subjects, photographing such works as

Three Asaro Mud Men, New Guinea (1970; platinum/palladium print, 1976) and Two Guedras, Morocco (1971; platinum/ palladium print, 1977), which are presented here with extraordinary detail, texture, and tone.

Still Lifes: Over the years Penn has created many striking still lifes in both his commercial and personal work. In the first photographs he conceived as platinum prints, he produced a series of still-lifes using urban detritus, such as cigarette butts and crushed paper; among them is Archipelago, New York (1975; platinum/palladium print, 1975). Pushing his technique still further, he made another series of still lifes in the late 1970s and early 1980s that tackled the challenges of revealing both the texture and changing tones of such disparate objects as steel blocks, human skulls, and leather shoes. Several striking examples were in the exhibition, including Composition with Skull and Pear, New York (1979; platinum/palladium print, 1981).

Platinum Test Materials Collages: The exhibition concluded with 12 Platinum Test Materials collages, which draw upon all of Penn’s genres, and make provocative associations between the works. When Penn made his platinum prints, he often used test strips, positioned to capture a photograph’s most relevant details and tonal range, instead of exposing full sheets of paper. In the late 1980s when he re-examined some of these strips, he was struck by their aesthetic qualities and attached several of them to large sheets of paper. By mixing together images from throughout his career, these collages reveal the diversity of his work and the unexpected juxtapositions between fashion and art, Western and non-Western ideals of beauty and adornment, and Penn’s personal and commercial work.

Irving Penn
Ballet Society, New York, 1948
platinum/palladium print, 1980, 57.6 x 46.7 cm (22 11/16 x 18 3/8)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Irving Penn
Copyright 1948 (renewed 1976) by Condé Nast Publications Inc.

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Artist’s Biography

Irving Penn was born in 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey. In 1934 he enrolled at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, where he studied design with Alexey Brodovitch.

In 1938 he began a career in New York as a graphic artist. Then, after a year painting in Mexico, he returned to New York City and began work at Vogue magazine, where Alexander Liberman was art director.

Liberman encouraged Penn to take his first color photograph, a still life that became the October 1, 1943, cover of Vogue, beginning a fruitful collaboration with the magazine that continues to this day. In addition to his editorial and fashion work for Vogue, Penn has photographed for other magazines and for a number of commercial clients in America and around the world.

He has published nine books of photographs: Moments Preserved (1960); Worlds in a Small Room (1974); Inventive Paris Clothes (1977); Flowers (1980); Passage (1991); Irving Penn Regards The Work of Issey Miyake (1999); Still Life (2001); Earthly Bodies (2002); A Notebook at Random (2004); and two books of drawings.

Penn's photographs are in the collections of major museums in America and throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which honored him with a retrospective exhibition in 1984. That exhibition was circulated to museums in twelve countries. In 1997, Penn made a major donation of prints and archival material to the Art Institute of Chicago. He made his gift of the Platinum Test Materials collages and 85 corresponding prints as well as archival material to the National Gallery of Art in 2002 and 2003.

Irving Penn, one of the 20th century's most influential photographers of fashion and the famous, whose signature blend of classical elegance and cool minimalism was recognizable to magazine readers and museum goers worldwide, died at the age of 92 in October, 2008.

Curator and Catalogue

Sarah Greenough, curator and head of the department of photographs, National Gallery of Art, is the exhibition curator. The exhibition catalogue Irving Penn: Platinum Prints was written by Greenough and published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Excellent article. lots of great images.

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