Irving Penn 1950 at Pace MacGill

Art Scene

Irving Penn 1950 at Pace MacGill

Elegance refined and democratically applied could define the work of legendary photographer, Irving Penn. Eight years after his passing at age 92 in New York, 2017 marks the centennial of Penn’s birth. The occasion is being honored with a retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and smaller gallery exhibitions across New York City, including Pace MacGill’s, Irving Penn 1950.

IRVING PENN, Butcher, London, 1950, platinum palladium print image, 19 5/8 x 15 1/8 inches

© Condé Nast

According to Irving Penn lore, 1950 was a particularly enjoyable year for the photographer; one that introduced him to a diverse array of portrait subjects, as well as his wife, Swedish model Lisa Fonssagrives. Penn, initially a graphic designer for Saks Fifth Avenue and then Vogue in the early 1940s, began his photographic career in 1943 shooting a cover for the magazine. By 1950, Vogue’s Art Director, Alexander Liberman, decided to send Penn to Paris to photograph the fall couture collections. Although the assignment was new territory for the photographer, Penn did not disappoint. In fact, he created a series of work that would forever change the landscape of fashion photography.

IRVING PENN, Balenciaga Mantle Coat(Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn)(A), Paris, 1950, gelatin silver print mounted to board image and paper, 21 5/8 x 17 1/2 inches

© Condé Nast

Using the simplest of setups, natural light and a used theater curtain as a backdrop, Penn photographed designs by Balenciaga, Dior, Rochas, and Schiaparelli. His model of choice for the series of images, Fonssagrives, proved to be an irresistible muse for the clean, textured and sculptural editorial photographs Penn ended up creating.

IRVING PENN, Charwomen, London, 1950, platinum palladium print mounted to aluminum image, 16 3/8 x 15 1/8 inches

© Condé Nast (Br.)

Penn applied his same attention to form and character in another series of work that year that captured both skilled workers and intellectual innovators in equal regard. From T. S. Eliot and Alberto Giacometti to cleaning ladies and coal workers, Penn’s portraits frame character studies in the context of vocation. A robust inner world can be felt in each subject that is further articulated through attire, trade tools, poses and posture.

IRVING PENN, T.S. Eliot(A), London, 1950, gelatin silver print image, 10 3/4 x 10 1/2 inches

© The Irving Penn Foundation

The year 1950 also included continued work on one of Penn’s private personal projects, a series of female nudes. The images featured a tightly cropped focus on the torso and emphasize a desexualized photographic study of the figure. Curves, shapes and lines figure prominently in the organic forms made up exclusively of combinations of thighs, belly, hip, and backside.

Curio Cabinet, Pace/MacGill Gallery installation view. Photo by Diana McClure

A curio cabinet featuring Vogue magazine covers and interior magazine layouts of Penn’s work is included in Irving Penn 1950. The display compliments the black and white images that make up the exhibition, showing Penn’s work in context as well as color.

Irving Penn 1950 is on display at Pace/MacGill Gallery through June 29, 2017.