Review of Irving Penn: On Assignment at Pace and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Irving Penn: On Assignment is an eclectic collection of photographs and media taken or published between the 1940s and 2008. Yet there is a unity to the pictures that derives from excellence. Beyond the artistic vision and pushing-the-envelope elaboration of form and style of the images as pictures or icons which many before have archived in the annals of art and media history, there is also the total mastery by Penn of the print.

Penn’s prints are impeccable (most in the show are gelatin silver prints). Every nuance of subject matter is revealed in the finest of detail and with the subtlest of texture. Metals and other shiny surfaces glint specifically in their own sphere of the image, highlighting only themselves or perhaps reflecting intentional evidence of the studio. Shadow offers reliable contour to subject and the space that surrounds in an infinity of shades in grey and black, and light is placed flat or with luminosity according to a heartfelt precision that is revelatory but not artificially built up. With this work one knows that assigning and aligning the lens and releasing the shutter is just the start.

The exhibition is a collection of photo assignments and portions of photo essays taken mostly through the agency of Vogue, but also for Life, House & Garden, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Four gelatin silver prints of the hand and palm of Miles Davis taken for Warner Bros. Entertainment in 1986 greet the visitor upon opening the front door. While indeed the show includes high fashion images, Hollywood and famous creative professionals like Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp it is balanced by still lifes and an international coterie of people from the every day. The work as such is not grouped thematically within the several rooms of the gallery, but rather it is hung aesthetically within a very open white-walled space such that work in differing rooms and nooks and corners can communicate effectively with one another and with the viewer depending upon one’s orientation.

What is distinctive about the portraiture and fashion photography is that whether a well-known or unknown face or body is available to the gaze or concealed by garments or heavy cloth, there is an honesty and frank revelation through gesture and expression, or the lack of it, available in every image. To that end, Penn shares with his audience a somewhat transcendental insight into the unity that is humanity despite differences across space or time. Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I in a seated gesture of authority that goes way beyond patriarchy and looks like a 17th-century painting from several feet away taken in New York, Hell’s Angel (Doug) taken in San Francisco and Cuzco Children taken in Peru thereby all share an elegance and convivial relationship as imagination and expression through photography.

The still lifes of the show can be gauche and even mocking as with Ripe Cheese or impossibly precise in a seeming disarray, as with Theatre Accident. The six in the show are each their own unique example, incorporating experimental renderings and varying mountings and print types. But as with the other photographs on exhibit they too offer, often in colour, a clarity and style obviously borrowed upon in the pages of major publications until today.

Phyllis Posnick, Executive Fashion Editor of Vogue, is quoted on exhibition wall text as saying, “He (Penn) wasn’t interested in simply taking another picture. He wanted every image to mean something, and he wanted to go further. He once told me that he would prefer to have a photograph killed because we dared to do something different than to have a mediocre one published because we didn’t.”

On Assignment is testament to that vision and commitment. It seems to be a show about beautifully crafted images and perhaps fame but it is really a show about vision, hard work and a willingness to be uncompromising. In today’s media culture of mediocrity Penn’s example is a revelation and an inspiring call to stand for the best.

Odette Gregory

Irving Penn: On Assignment, 13 September until 26 October, Pace and Pace/MacGill Gallery, 510 West 25th Street, New York, NY 10001.

Image: Installation vie Irving Penn: On Assignment