The Metropolitan Museum opened a few weeks ago one of the most comprehensive Irving Penn’s retrospectives. Named Centennial, the exhibit revisits Penn’s work from his portrait’s series, the Vogue’s years, his trips to New Guinea and South America, and of course, his still life series.
Walking through the show was a very humbling process. First for the natural elegance of his work, the sincerity of his eye and his ability to see beauty in everything whether photographing celebrities, Peruvians, cigaret butts, flowers or skulls. He had the classicism of a Hans Holbein the Younger or Johannes Vermeer catching rare conversations between his subjects (his guests?) and himself. You can feel the time passing, blunt moments of life, reminders of its beauty but also of its vulnerability.
Penn once said “I don’t think I was overawed by the subjects. I thought we were in the same boat.” This couldn’t be more true. I find Penn’s work mesmerizing for his integrity and uncompromised vision. Think of a world prior Warhol, Internet and Instagram. Penn’s perpetual quest for the unknown or desire to revisit our present was insatiable travelling, for example, to several villages of Papua New Guinea with his crew and tent, during an annual festival and waiting for local people from tribes in the surrounding districts, all there to sing, dance, and compete with one another in dazzling displays of finery and spectacular body adornment, to pose for him. Patience and humility.
Exhition from April 24th to July 30th, 2017. The Met Fifth Avenue, Gallery 199.
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, copyright The Irving Penn Foundation and Condé Nast