Irving Penn | de Young Museum, San Francisco

BY Glen Helfand, July 1, 2024

The de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is noted for its popular fashion exhibitions. The Irving Penn retrospective, on view through July 21, is concurrent with a high-profile show of haute couture from local collections. Penn’s work with Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar puts him in this terrain, but this abundant exhibition of nearly 200 photographs expands his legacy into broader artistic territory. Portraiture, still life, formal experimentation, global cultures, and photographic history were equal interests. They counterbalance the richly colored, widely known fashion photographs that represent a sliver of his work.

This show is a version of the exhibition that debuted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017, when it was titled Centennial (Penn was born in 1917). It arrived in San Francisco seven years later with the addition of photographs taken in San Francisco in the 1960s, including portraits of hippies, Hells Angels, and San Francisco rock bands. (A show at Robert Koch Gallery, through August 3, includes portraits that are also on view at the de Young.) 

Irving Penn, Joe Louis, February 15, 1948. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation, 2021. ©Condé Nast

The first gallery includes panels hanging from a high ceiling that emulate Penn’s early strategy of photographing his subjects posed in tightly angled corners. He pushed together two freestanding wall flats to create an intimate space in which his iconic sitters took on a heightened individuality. Penn’s 1948 portrait of Joe Louis, for example, depicts the seated, shirtless boxer wedged into a corner, his shoulders touching both walls. The space cannot quite contain him, and his expression is an impassive glower. The scrappy set up for this series is not glamorous, yet the black-clad, flamboyant fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, in a 1948 photo, sidles in, one arm akimbo, the other raised, her gloved fingers positioned as though snapping. She makes full, conscious use of the set, not to mention her dark, button-down coat, a furry black hat and shoes. Penn, though, reveals the infrastructure, showing the brace of the wall on the right and the bare room behind. By revealing the hardware, he intimates that presentation takes work, and Schiaparelli is as much a construction as this environment. 

The makeshift portrait backdrop points to Penn’s nomadic impulses. Throughout the exhibition are works taken on the road, against a signature muddled gray tarp, like an abstract painting of clouds, that both undercuts any glamour and alludes to the photographer’s interest in painting (something that he did throughout his life). The show includes galleries devoted to series photographed on distant travels, including an international range of tradespeople. He photographed in Cuzco, Peru; Papua New Guinea; and the Republic of Dahomey, now the Republic of Benin, posing indigenous figures against a neutral backdrop. Though his intentions were not political, the wall text acknowledges the charge these works have in a contemporary context: “Although it was not his intention to echo stereotypes of ethnographic photography, Penn’s identity as a foreigner and his isolation of the sitters against a blank background inevitably recalls such colonialist traditions.” 

Irving Penn, Hells Angel (Doug), San Francisco, 1967. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation, 2021. © The Irving Penn Foundation

More formal experiments, such as the fleshy nudes from the late 1940s and early 1950s and the 1972 series Cigarettes, are more fascinating counterpoints to the flurry of fashion and celebrity. The nudes are abstract and purposefully grainy, the bodies imperfect and shapely. Nude No. 1, New York (1947), suggests the Venus of Willendorf. He bleached and re-developed these prints, giving them a weathered, washed-out appearance that accentuates form over concepts of traditional female beauty. The close-ups of cigarette butts have a similarly abraded appearance. The subjects are greatly enlarged, making these used, burned objects monumental, totemic cylinders that flirt with ugliness and mortality. 

The latter galleries, which are generally chronological, are more diverse, suggesting that Penn continued, into the 21st century, to explore his repertoire in various ways. (He died in 2009, at the age of 92.) He experimented with abstraction in his 1990s photographs of Issey Miyake’s clothing, which the designer entrusted to the photographer to be interpreted as he saw fit. There are more recent portraits (Zaha Hadid, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Nicole Kidman), and the iconic Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York (1986), a commercial image of a pale mouth daubed with a vibrant flowering of lipstick colors. It transcends its advertising genesis and reminds us that Penn’s first love was painting. He comes across here, amidst his life’s work, as a true artist.