1950 was a landmark year in the life and oeuvre of Irving Penn (1917-2009), of which he often spoke fondly. In Pennís words, he was delighted by the fact that he never knew who was on the other end of a knock at the door: T.S. Eliot, a street sweeper, or a professional model.
Beginning his photographic career at Conde Nast in 1943, by mid-century Penn was deep into the development of his signature style, a formal simplicity he deftly applied to different genres with striking results. In the summer of 1950, at the behest of Vogueís then Art Director Alexander Liberman, Penn traveled to Paris to photograph the fall couture collections for the first time. Using the daylight of a top-floor studio and a discarded theater curtain as a seamless, neutral backdrop, in 10 days Penn produced a series of editorial images that transformed the visual aesthetics of fashion photography. Focusing primarily on elegant Swedish model Lisa Fonssagrives Ė whom he married in London shortly after the Paris sessions Ė Penn showcased selected Balenciaga, Dior, Rochas, and Schiaparelli garments with a straightforward presentation and formal concentration that defied convention.
The eloquent economy of Penn's fashion photographs echoed his work in portraiture that year, as the stark studio at rue de Vaugirard hosted sittings with celebrated cultural figures like Alberto Giacometti and the Parisian subjects of his Small Trades series. This significant body of work, begun in Paris in the summer of 1950 and continued in London and New York over the next year, drew inspiration from EugŤne Atget's petits metiers pictures and featured full-length portraits of skilled workers bearing their occupational tools and dress. Butchers, pastry chefs, charwomen, and lorry washers alike posed against Penn's mottled backdrop with the same distinguished presence as his couture models.
Pennís photography has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions worldwide. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York recently opened Irving Penn: Centennial, a major retrospective of over 200 of Pennís photographs in celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, which will travel to venues in Paris, Berlin, and Sâo Paulo. Other recent exhibitions include Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. (2015-16), which traveled to the Dallas Museum of Art (2016) and the Lunder Arts Center, Lesley University, Cambridge (2016), and is currently on view at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville. His work can be found in both domestic and international museum collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; the Morgan Library and Museum, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Penn published multiple books of photographs: Moments Preserved (1960); Worlds in a Small Room (1974); Inventive Paris Clothes (1977); Flowers (1980); Issey Miyake (1988); Passage (1991); Still Life (2001); A Notebook at Random (2004); Photographs of Dahomey (2004); as well as two books of drawings. Monographs of his work include: Irving Penn (1984); Irving Penn: Master Images (1990); Irving Penn: A Career in Photography (1997); Dancer (2001); Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949-50 (2002); Irving Penn: Platinum Prints (2005); Irving Penn: Small Trades (2009); Irving Penn: Portraits (2010); Irving Penn: Archæology (2010); Irving Penn: Cigarettes (2012); Irving Penn: Cranium Architecture (2013); Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty (2015); Irving Penn: Flowers (2015); and Irving Penn: Centennial (2017).
Balenciaga Mantle Coat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn) (A), Paris, 1950 © Condé Nast
Lorry Washers, London, 1950 © Condé Nast (Br.)
One of the world's leading photography galleries, Pace/MacGill has been dedicated to advancing fine art photography for over 30 years. Known for discovering artists, representing masters, and placing important collections and archives into major public institutions, Pace/MacGill has presented some 200 exhibitions and published numerous catalogues on modern and contemporary photography. Founded in 1983 by Peter MacGill, in collaboration with Arne Glimcher of Pace and Richard Solomon of Pace Editions, Pace/MacGill is located at 32 East 57th Street in New York City.