New York

Irving Penn, Nude No. 106, 1949–50, black-and-white photograph, 14 3/4 x 17 5/8".

Irving Penn, Nude No. 106, 1949–50, black-and-white photograph, 14 3/4 x 17 5/8".

Irving Penn

In 1991, more than forty years after he had completed his first nudes, Irving Penn declared: “The relationship between us was professional, without a hint of sexual response. Anything else would have made pictures like these impossible.”

In 2001 Penn said of the same sessions, “It was a kind of love affair. I was a bachelor at the time.” He recalled staying connected to the models “with coos, murmurs, and supportive breathing to convey that everything was wonderful, just right in this perfect situation.” He would get down on the floor with his camera right next to the model. The camera allowed “our discovery, together, of each other.”

Will the real Irving Penn please stand up?

Maybe the real Penn is to be found not by sorting out his feelings, or for that matter his taste in body types—fleshy (like his nude models) or svelte (like his Vogue models, including the one he married, Lisa Fonssagrives). Maybe the real Penn, if such a being exists, is to be found by looking at what he actually does with these bodies.

Two exhibitions of Penn’s nudes, organized separately, are now on view in New York. The large prints in “Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn’s Nudes, 1949–50,” curated by Maria Morris Hambourg at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were made a half century ago, when the photographer, a former student of Alexey Brodovitch, was working at Vogue under Alexander Liberman. The small-format images for “Dancer,” organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (where a second set of these prints is simultaneously on view), were made only a few years ago.

Save for the fact that both shows feature shockingly fleshy flesh, the two are little alike. One is structured like a deliberate and intimate performance, while the other mimics the disorienting deformations of dreams.

The twenty-seven photographs in “Dancer” all feature Alexandra Beller, a member of the Bill T. Jones Dance Company. Hung in a single room, the pictures form a narrative that begins with Beller, a sturdy woman with big legs and dirty feet, stretching. She sits on the floor, places one foot over her thigh, and cranes her neck to look over her shoulder. She stands and arches backward like a bodybuilder. After thrusting out her chest she tucks one knee coyly behind the other and tosses her head back. It looks like intermission.

The next movement, shot with a 1/1,000-second strobe, shows Beller flinging herself against a heavy theater curtain over and over, like a trapped animal. Then she sits in an invisible chair against the curtain and throws an arm up in apparent exhaustion. Her hair flops over her face.

For the last act, Beller speeds up—or rather the shutter slows down to a three-second click. The traces of her motions show up as extra arms, legs, and breasts. She puts a choke hold on herself, then begins an ecstatic marching dance, feet and arms flailing. She looks down at her heel and kicks it up behind her, creating a carefree phantom limb. Finally, Beller lowers her arms and gives her head a shake, looking like one of those clay-footed neoclassical women Picasso painted in the ’20s.

If “Dancer” is a narrative with its own ineluctable logic, a private performance for Penn by Beller, “Earthly Bodies,” the photographer’s earlier series, is structured more like a dream. Instead of being part of a story, each picture is a metaphoric substitution for a part of the body. In these pictures of headless torsos, as in John Coplans’s much later “Self-Portrait” series, it is often hard to tell what body parts are actually being shown. When you look at them, you don’t think “breast, stomach, leg” but rather “dough, smile, landscape.”

One photograph of a torso with its legs drawn up resembles a huge prehistoric bone. And the picture of the pubis and belly? That’s a copse, some gently rolling dunes, a brooding sky. Then there is the bakery series: shots of flesh so soft and white that it looks like the dough for loaves and rolls, rising and sinking.

There are anatomical confusions, too, photographs in which a model’s chin and upper arm read like a third and fourth breast or in which a torso is so twisted that the faint line running from navel to sternum looks like a butt crack. In some pictures the navel is the button nose and the nipples are tiny eyes that peer suspiciously at the lens. It is almost as if this formless flesh were pleading for recognition. In a few of the shocking high-contrast pictures Penn made of a lower torso scrunched in a chair, the sagging breasts are eyes with sleepy bags under them, and the hinge where the leg connects directly to the belly (bypassing the pubis entirely) reads as an ingratiating smile. One big happy face.

This is disturbing: As in a dream, the part substitutes for the whole and the whole is condensed into the part. Here is live flesh as an inanimate object striving to be seen as animate. It is willful flesh that can’t decide whether it is really baby, doll, or face; sand, dough, or dwarf. In these photographs, Penn, who read Minotaure and other Surrealist magazines, was drawn to the zone between life and nonlife.

In choosing big lumpy bodies for his nudes, Penn is usually thought to have been fleeing the perfection of the fashion models he was working with at the time. But why do this? Maybe because the fashion-perfect body locks the gaze, while the imperfect body allows the mind to wander and make metaphors of its flesh. Penn wooed the models not for love and not even for the forms their bodies made but to get to know the formless flesh and hear it speak.

Sarah Boxer writes on photography for the New York Times.