New York

Irving Penn

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Irving Penn’s glacial photographs command respect, but try as I might I can’t bring myself to like them. Perfectly crafted, they’re by the same token bloodless and sour. Penn is indeed a virtuoso of composition and gesture—a quality made that much more impressive by the fact that he pares away all extraneities from his pictures, leaving his subjects unambiguously pinnned on a stark ground. Composition can be raised to the level of a moral principle, as it has been in the work of photographers as diverse as Edward Weston and Garry Winogrand. In Penn’s photos, though, it never becomes more than glib virtuosity.

There’s no denying Penn’s importance in fashion photography. His bracing, Modernist-derived directness came into that froufrou world after World War II like a welcome breath of chill air, and, indeed, it’s his photographs from the years 1949 to 1952 that make the best claim for his significance. The graphic starkness of his work matched the clean elegance of the postwar fashion look well, and made his style seem all the more inevitable.

Penn’s style, like that of Alfred Stieglitz and other early Modernist photographers, relies not only on formal simplicity but also on the conventions of 19th-century photography. Just as Frank Eugene echoed the work of D.O. Hill and Robert Adamson in his turn-of-the-century society portraits, Penn adopted the style of early studio photographers, complete with simple posing props and smudgy background cloths, in his so-called “ethnographic” portraits of such groups as Indians in Peru and tribesmen in Africa and New Guinea. But there’s a hateful cuteness about photographing peasants and other “primitives” in a nostalgic vernacular style and then presenting the work in galleries and magazines. The apparently unexamined romantic notions about noble savages implicit in the work give Penn’s pictures of Hell’s Angels, done in the same manner, a ludicrous edge.

As Penn has turned increasingly toward the art world, the mocking tone that has always been latent in his portraits has grown stronger. His exquisitely crafted closeups of cigarette butts and street detritus are the flip side of the celebration of “naturalness” in his ethnographic portraits. Culture in general, whether represented by the celebrities he caricatures in his portraits or the art he parodies in his gallery work, has become his target. Behind the righteous anger, though, lies a defensive resentment which ends up acknowledging the legitimacy of whatever’s being mocked. Penn’s curious stance is that of a dreamy, romantic outsider who longs to join this or that societal game but sees through its falseness, and thus is compelled to lash out at it bitterly.

Penn’s work and reputation were not well served in this exhibition, curated by John Szarkowski. With only one exception, no magazine tearsheets were shown, and so no sense was given of the impact his postwar fashion work had in context, of how thrilling a break it represented from what was around it (which, after all, is what fashion is about). In many cases the photographs shown here weren’t even vintage prints, but recent reprints—tellingly, most of them artified by being printed in the platinum-and-palladium process that Penn has favored for his gallery work. The sense of confusion, of a photographer struggling to decide whether he wants his work to be considered photography or art (however he defines those terms), was summed up by the otherwise baffling decision to hang two versions—one vintage silver; one platinum-palladium, larger, and in a different cropping—of the same photograph, the famous one (as are so many of Penn’s pictures) of Marcel Duchamp squeezed into a narrow corner.

Charles Hagen