Thanks to Lesley University and Smithsonian Museum, we were able to see the works of Irving Penn. Many were his platinum print originals and some new prints reflected his style very well. It was a fun, enjoyable, and highly educational trip to Boston with Jan and Jim. Leaving around 10:30 AM on November 16, we arrived at the exhibit location around 12 noon. As luck would have it, Jim found a parking space right in front of the exhibit venues.
Very highly regarded as a fashion and art photographer, Irving Penn created his signature style relatively early in his career under the guidance of Alexey Brodovitch who was a critical factor in Penn’s career as well as that of Avedon, Hiro, and many others. Penn pursued his first love, painting and drawing for about a year at home and abroad in Mexico before deciding he was not really good at them. Photography became his art and craft and for decades he pleased, amazed, and wowed viewers, art lovers, editors, and of course, the fashion industry.
His vision was powerful and his craft matched his vision. He photographed to create the results of his vision, be it a cigarette butt, a piece of crumpled paper, or a Dior dress with a kerchief tucked in the sleeve. I have read stories where he asked for dozens and dozens of items because none fit his vision of, say a pair of shoes. Although not thought of as one, Penn had surrealist hints in his work as a result of him removing the mental barriers in front of his creativity. This allowed him to create his unique works in fashion and commercial art while creating pieces of fine art at the same time. The Dior dress with a kerchief turns the posing arm and hand into a bird, or a black dress on Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn becomes a large bow that seems to float her. His vision is fully intact when he presents us with a self-portrait on a cracked mirror of several “Penn’s.” The bee on the lips, the chicks in a jar, and many others among his works will jolt the eye and the mind, ask us to dispense with reason, and enjoy the photograph. Of course, the cover of the exhibit catalog, Beyond Beauty, displays a mannequin head, fully made up and frozen in a large block of ice with impact marks possibly from an ice-pick.
The exhibit was quite rich, and the collection spread over three rooms in two buildings. There was no picture-taking in the exhibit areas, but the gallery sitting young woman resting her injured leg and foot on a chair, with a copy of the exhibit catalog proved irresistible for me. She was quite agreeable for me to take the photograph so long as I did not point the camera at the Penn collection. Thank you!
After we walked through all three galleries, we searched for a place to have lunch. The pub in the same complex came recommended, and they were right. We all enjoyed the food, my burger was just right (well-done!), and the french fries were probably the best I have ever had. After a pleasant time and lunch, we headed back, full in the tummy and richer in mind after experiencing Irving Penn’s work first hand.
I found the photographs below mainly from the Smithsonian collection with the exception of a few that came from various sources on the Internet. I am also sharing some other links related to Penn and his work as well as a few words I spoke for further reading if you wish to do so. The photographs I took during our visit are mainly for the record, and this is my only chance to have my work appear on the same page as Irving Penn!!
By the way, you may know another Penn, his brother director and producer Arthur Penn who gave us movies you may remember: Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, The Little Big Man, and more on the screen. He also has a long list of stage productions. It seems to run in the family! We are better for them.
The below are the photographs from our visit.