Art and Commerce
by William R. Thompson
Few artists have negotiated the realms of art and commerce as successfully as photojournalist Irving Penn. For more than 50 years, Penn has received critical acclaim and lucrative assignments from magazines, designers and corporations. Yet throughout his prolific career -despite the fickleness of the fashion world, the demands of clients and consumers alike — he has never stopped growing artistically or investigating the limits of the photographic medium. While some photographers maintain strict separation between their commercial work and personal exploration, Penn has found inspiration in both and his imagery reflects a half-century-long dialogue between a highly marketable salesman and introspective artist.
Penn's photography was one of a number of highlights at the inauguration of the Audrey Jones Beck Building of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a grand, austere space designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo that opened to the public on March 25. On view in the lower level of the Beck Building, Irving Penn: A Career in Photography featured more than 100 of Penn's works from the late 19308 through the present.
Although many of the photographs on view were vintage, others were later prints made from Penn's old negatives using the platinum palladium process, which produces rich, grainy tones as well as more durable images. Since 1964, Penn has reinterpreted much of his oeuvre in this way and fostered a new market for his work among collectors and museums. In the mid-1990s, Penn donated his archive to the Art Institute of Chicago, which catalogued the material and organized this traveling exhibition. Penn's alluring mix of glamour and stark modernity was an apt choice for the MFAH's opening festivities.
One of the earliest photographs in the exhibition, Optician's Shop Window (c. 1939/printed 1982), which depicts anoversized pair of mock eyeglasses with two painted eyeballs for lenses, foreshadows several directions in Penn's laterwork, including his penchant for classical composition, unusual found objects and of course, the visual language of advertising. Like many photographers in the 19305, Penn fell under the influence of Surrealism, particularly the movement'spreoccupation with unexpected juxtapositions and fragmented, eroticized bodies. The glassy, unflinching eyeballs in Optician's Shop Window reappear in various forms throughout Penn's work. In Contact Lens (i98i/printed 1984), a close-up of an anonymous model about to place a tinted contact lens on her eye, the photographer transforms his subject into anidealized abstraction of mascara, eye shadow and fingernail polish, while the viewer plays the role of squeamish voyeur.
Penn's uncanny ability to make the familiar seem exotic was the dream of every fashion editor and advertiser and not surprisingly, he will forever be known for his early ground-breaking photographs for Vogue and other glossy magazines. The exhibition was generously peppered with signature examples of Penn's fashion work. Among these prints, Harlequin Dress (i950/printed 1979) — a portrait of Penn's wife, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, in a checkerboard-patterned dress — stands as a seminal image of post-war glamour. Posed within a neutral studio space and adorned with dark gloves, pearls and a cigarette, she looms before the viewer with steely nonchalance, like a pyramid in the desert. Penn's love of formalism and mastery of black-and-white photography is evident in another well-known image from this era: Black and White Vogue Cover (i95o/printed 1968), showing model Jean Patchett in a dark hat and dress with netting stretched over her face. She, like Fonssagrives-Penn, appears completely detached from the concerns of the so-called real world, an image perfectly suited to selling the fantasy of high fashion. Penn's sharp modernist aesthetic was a refreshing change from the pomp and stiff formality found in the work of forerunners such as Cecil Beaton and George Platt Lynes and his imagery helped redefine the look of fashion photography in the second half of the 2OTH century.
Penn's icy, idealized models swaddled in haute couture could not appear more different from the fleshy, anonymous nudes he photographed from 1949 to 1950 and exhibited in 1980 at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. In this series, Penn seemed to distance himself from the heavy artifice of the fashion industry and instead depicted the body in its most natural state. Closely cropped by the picture frame, these figures read as gently rolling landscapes or ancient Greco-Roman sculptures. Always one to experiment with the printing process, Penn used bleach to soften the appearance of these photographs and to heighten their abstract qualities.
Models were not the only subjects to sit before Penn's camera. A master of portraiture, he has photographed hundreds of people, from avant-garde artists and celebrities to egg sellers and pastry cooks. In the 19405, Penn often made use ofunusual props to divert the attention of his more imposing subjects. In 1948, he individually photographed Georgia O'Keeffe, Marcel Duchamp, Martha Graham and other art world notables wedged between two angled theater flats.Gradually, Penn began to focus more intensely on his subjects in jarring close-ups. In his portrait of Miles Davis from 1986, Penn concentrates not on the musician's face, but instead on his weathered palm and fingers, posed as though playing an imaginary trumpet. Penn's portraits of the indigenous people of Peru, New Guinea and Cameroon have often beencategorized as "anthropological studies," but in reality they differ little from his commercial work. The subjects in Three Asaro Mud Men (i97o/printed 1984) are positioned in his traveling studio, divorced from their cultural context and perform for the camera-like veteran fashion models.
Among Penn's most interesting and perhaps least appreciated works are his still lifes, particularly those addressing the subjects of death and decay. Laden with symbolism, these images have given Penn a venue for exploring themes usually denied him by his commercial assignments. The disintegrating cigarette butt in Cigarette No. 69 (19727 printed 1975) appears all the more unsettling when compared to his shots of tantalizing consumer goods. Likewise, the stacked human skulls in The Poor Lovers (i979/printed 1980) stand in sharp contrast to Penn's countless images of young faces in their prime. Fish Made offish (i939/printed 1983), a photograph of hundreds of tiny sardines arranged in the shape of a fish, is a captivating, whimsical reflection on the competitive nature of the food chain. Even the playfully balanced fruits and vegetables in Frozen Foods with String Beans (i977/printed 1993) take on a weighty air, wryly evoking the melancholy of i8xH-century Dutch still lifes in which aging produce — the bounty of economic prosperity — becomes a metaphor for thetransitory nature of life. •
William R. Thompson is curator of the El Paso Museum of Art.