Midway through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s magnificent new “Irving Penn: Centennial” exhibition, an old theater curtain the photographer used as a backdrop in some of his most famous portraits beckons iPhone-wielding visitors to be both artist and subject—capturing their companions or posing in front of the curtain, as Marlene Dietrich and Yves Saint Laurent did for Irving Penn.
The Met’s retrospective is the most comprehensive of Penn’s work to date. It features 187 photographs spanning his nearly 70-year career, from early still-lifes to Penn’s iconic fashion images featured in Vogue, along with his truncated nudes, portraits of natives of Peru and Africa, and of artists and intellectuals like Salvador Dalí and Colette.
Indeed, there is much to see in the exhibition. But the curtain installation will surely be a huge draw for visitors. It’s a rather clever way of turning an already fantastic photography exhibition into an interactive, hashtaggable experience for our Instagram-addicted age.
Even social media cynics will appreciate the curtain’s context and realism. Penn began using it in Paris in 1950 as a neutral backdrop for his portraits and toted it around to various studios in London and New York over the next half-century. It hangs from the ceiling—lightly stained and tattered at the edges, as it was when Penn first found it—in the center of a small gallery featuring Penn’s portraits of Audrey Hepburn, Colette, Richard Burton, Francis Bacon, and others.
One imagines the photographer in a kabuki dance with his subjects as he meticulously staged these portraits. Penn managed to stay in control with even his most recalcitrant subjects. Picasso famously hid when the photographer arrived at his house in the south of France, one wall text explains, before finally conceding to 10 minutes in front of the camera, during which the artist playfully donned a cape to make it more challenging for Penn to get his shot. You’d never know it from the resulting 1957 portrait, which hones in exquisitely on the dramatic gaze of Picasso’s left eye.
In another gallery, Penn’s “Small Trade” portraits of urban laborers reveal his gift for capturing his subjects’ demeanor and teasing out their personalities, be they pastry chefs, sewage cleaners, or cultural heavyweights featured in other sections of the exhibition. Earlier portraits taken in the late 1940s, including images of Truman Capote and Alfred Hitchcock, show the photographer beginning to perfect his method of framing his subjects in a corner, angled between two walls, as a way of controlling them. Disproportionately large-seeming body parts (hands, feet) in some of these portraits highlight the foreshortening lens trickery that Penn would turn to again when photographing his nudes.
Penn was best known as a fashion photographer, and the exhibition devotes plenty of space to some of the more iconic images from his Vogue shoots, like the 1950 photo of his favorite model who would later become his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, in a Rochas Mermaid gown. The images of Peruvians in Cuzco that appeared in the 1949 issue of Vogue illustrate Penn’s gift for highlighting the structure and silhouette of a garment, so that it resembled a sculpture.
The exhibit also features a number of his late still lifes, taken between 1975 and 2007, of detritus-like metal parts taken from the garbage or decaying fruit. As one of the Met’s wall text notes, still lifes were “human surrogates” for Penn, who “photographed them singly or arranged in conversations.” Indeed, his series of past-their-prime flowers featured in Vogue in the late 1960s evokes his portrait subjects, with blooms swooning and seemingly turning their backs to the camera.
The exhibit is exhaustive without being exhausting, so that visitors can sufficiently see everything in an hour or two. They will leave feeling inspired and invigorated—and with plenty of fresh material to decorate their social media feeds.