Unparalleled Portraiture

Unparalleled Portraiture

Commemorating 100 years since the birth of iconic photographer Irving Penn (b. 1917), an extensive retrospective of the artist’s portfolio is presented by Irving Penn Foundation and MoMA, New York, showcasing 240 works at C/O Berlin. By surveying a career which spans the course of 70 years, delicate still life, abstract female nudes and detailed portraits of famous personas, including Pablo Picasso (b. 1881), Alfred Hitchcock (b. 1899) and Audrey Hepburn (b. 1929), are featured, all captured with the creative’s characteristically neutral backdrops and close-cropped compositions.

Many iconic series are featured in the show, demonstrating the breadth of subject matter adopted by Penn, as well as his ability to make every model, inanimate object or scene intriguing and unique, utilising unusual poses and emphasising high contrasts. Exemplifying these qualities is The Small Trades (1950-1951), a collection of full-length, monochromatic studies of labourers, tradesmen and shopkeepers, adorning their differing uniforms and holding, or using, symbols of their work. By documenting history, memory and nostalgia, Penn’s compositional approach not only reflects on the past, but also questions the future of humanity. Originally taken on a Rolleiflex Camera, the series now symbolises a history of mechanical innovation. By presenting the chronology of photographic experimentation alongside the development of traditional job roles, the exhibition shows how modern technology impacts identity and purpose.

Beyond scenes of the everyday, Penn’s work highlights significance of perception and truth, documenting unseen communities, uncovering beauty and emphasising the importance of negative space. With a background in graphic design, his work employs shape, pattern and symmetry, redefining approaches to fashion photography, the human body and social examination.  The exhibition explores this suggestion, displaying a selection of 160 Vogue covers as well as collaborations with Lisa Fonssagrive-Penn, sought-after model, muse and Penn’s wife.

These highly stylised works are displayed alongside the rigid, unfamiliar topographies and the indigenous communities of Peru (1948), New Guinea (1967) and Morocco (1971). Similar to the artist’s other portraiture work, these series were constructed in clean, studio surroundings, highlighting the clarity, elegance and a sense of familiarity, emblematic to the photographer’s tone. The pictures present narratives of change and difference, noting the diversity of humanity and placing Penn’s portfolio as timeless, finding new relevance in modern contexts.

C/O Berlin, Berlin. Until 1 July. Find out more here.

1. Irving Penn, Girl with Tobacco on Tongue, 1951, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation © Condé Nast