I finally went to see the Irving Penn exhibit at the Grand Palais (Paris), two weeks before it is to close. I’d been looking forward to it ever since I saw the marquee-sized posters around the city back in September. Perhaps I felt a bit intimidated about writing about a blockbuster show honoring a blockbuster photographer.
In fact I’ve been silent on this blog since Paris Photo back in early November. I think I finally met my match – not that all that I have to say about photography in its historical and cultural settings just flows trippingly from my (virtual) pen, but that there was way too much to say about way too many styles of photography, and I practically drowned in possibilities. After that, I went through a period of what I’d call resignation. Oh, well, why try to write something new? You can’t keep up with it all – you can’t understand it all – just go home and have a glass of wine.
Since I’m a beer drinker, that prescription from my inner demon didn’t take, at least permanently.
The other thing about the Irving Penn exhibit was that I imagined that the rooms – the very prints – would necessarily match the scale of the building, which is satisfyingly though also intimidatingly massive….like the posters and like Irving Penn’s reputation.
But in fact the rooms were constructed on a human scale, and the prints ringing each room were sometimes no more than 12 by 15 (as we would say in the U.S.). – smaller than a full-page tabloid image. (You might take a look at the curators’ video account of choosing the prints to get a sense of their sizes.)
The exhibition is laid out both chronologically and thematically. The catalogue is appropriately massive, but there are also several thoughtful aids to viewers: the legends on the walls, the traditional audioguides, and finally, a helpful iPhone app that includes an hour-long audio tour of the exhibit as well focusing on one or two prints in each room.
Moreover, the show had a three-month run at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City from April to July before it arrived in Paris, and there are supplemental audioguides and videos still on the Met site that do not entirely duplicate the Paris versions, so that the interested student has access to a range of background and commentary on Penn’s work.
With this profusion of information and analysis, what was missing, for me, was a sense of the man himself. I know that is not a good postmodern sentiment. I also don’t mean to suggest that the curators fell down on the job. Finally, I don’t mean to imply that I don’t like Penn’s work. I like and admire much of it. I didn’t spend a lot of time on his full-sized portraits of cast away cigarette butts — not that they weren’t compositionally and texturally interesting, just that I’d had my fill very quickly.
Also – to hit my own negatives before I flow into the positives and the raves – I’ve become increasingly impatient with the male imperative that one’s body of work, so to speak, must include female nudes – or “the female nude,” as is often said. What is supposed to be special about Penn’s nudes is that they are unadorned. The women actually have pubic hair. Some are fat – not just zaftig, but stout. They are all pretty much partial. The male gaze. Gotta love it. Not.
However, let’s backtrack. This means backtracking rhetorically as well as chronologically as well as geographically, strolling back through the exhibit rooms. Penn is famous for a number of phases of his work, which put little bright twists on the then-traditions in portraiture and fashion photography.
In addition, he renewed an older approach to ethnographic photography – one you might find in Curtis and Rinehart as they photographed American Indians. Penn was likewise romantic, not always in helpful ways – not always, that is, in ways that were true to the modern or colonized experiences of the subjects he was shooting. But there is dignity in his ethnographic photography, particularly I think in the Cuzco Indian series he did in the late 1940s, during a trip to Peru.
The most famous of these images, “Cuzco Children,” is riveting. It captures two small, stout children in their everyday dress, leaning casually on a kind of end table resting on a tile floor in front of a loosely-draped back cloth. The children’s expressions give nothing to the photographer – no awe, no deference. Penn’s other Cuzco photographs seem to me likewise respectful.
He made a practice of isolating both human and non-human subjects. His favorite backdrop, a theatrical cloth he bought in Paris, he kept with him for years, both in Europe and New York.
My personal preference pretty much always is a subject in her environment. But somehow Penn was able, often, to tease the environment from the subject herself (I’m not talking about the nudes). Early on one of his favorite tricks, after he started shooting for Vogue, was to pose his celebrity subjects in a corner that formed an acute angle, as if he were challenging them to escape from him. A bit sadistic and controlling, perhaps – I don’t know what happened in the sessions – but also fascinating and effective at eliciting wonderful poses and expressions.
We do have some anecdotal evidence of Penn’s sessions. He liked to talk to his subjects and not be in a big hurry to rush them out of the studio. When he thought the time was right he would capture them expressing their inner selves. There is a great story about how he caught Ingmar Bergman massaging his eyelids as the men prepared to take a break after two hours of work. That became Bergman’s portrait, and not bad as an ironic reflection of the director’s work.
There are a few counter-anecdotes, including one provided by the Paris curators, who retell the story of Anais Nin’s portrait session, after which she characterized Penn as “cold,” and said that he “did not see me,” and friends wondered how he had gotten her all snugged up in a high-collared blouse. It’s a beautiful photo, I think, but it may not portray Nin as she believed herself to be. In any case, she was not comfortable with the sitting, which took place in her apartment.
The Met’s curators recount how they put the show together, and it must have been satisfying indeed. Through the Penn Foundation, they had access to Penn’s prints – not the negatives or proofs, but thousands of prints, and they were able to lay the prints out on a large surface and make their choices. I would have found that agonizing, but we are the beneficiaries, and it is exciting to know that we are viewing the prints he made himself. I don’t get all fetishistic about film photography in the good old days, but the rich tonality of Penn’s black and white work tumbles us back through the decades in a wonderful way.
I finally made my way to the Grand Palais on a Sunday, fairly early in the day, hoping that I could get in without a pre-purchased ticket because the exhibit was so well seasoned, shall we say. I was right. There was hardly any wait to get in – the first time. Then as I approached the last chamber of the exhibit, on the second level, there was one of those banner events of our difficult world: a “technical problem,” i.e. a terrorist scare, for which the staff had to empty the building. My second spell of waiting in line to reenter so I could claim my checked jacket was quite a bit longer. I came away, though, with a renewed sense of the efficiency and humanity of the French security system, having to coordinate across many agencies to deal with unique and unanticipated emergencies. Considering that the crowd outside the Palais resembled Woodstock on arrival day (speaking of the olden days) the fact that most of us were readmitted, including the second security check, well within an hour, was remarkable.
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