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Irving Penn: Centennial by Maria Morris Hambourg et al

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Obregon Moderator Donor Ribbon. Awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas.  Charter Member
Fri 21-May-21 08:32 AM
Irving Penn was one of the great fashion photographers of the 20th century. However, his work extended far beyond that. He created beautiful images in many other genres from portraits to still lives to advertising work to what some think of ethnographic studies. Yet after reading this book, one might feel that something was missing in his work, and perhaps his life.

This is a massive book, weighing in at more than six pounds. It was issued to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. It features several articles, first covering his life and then each of the genres that he worked in. Each article includes small photographs of his work and the work of other artists whose work is reflected by Penn. The book includes large plates of his photographs, usually in Black and White. The book cannot duplicate the range of light and texture of his original prints, but comes as close as possible in a printed page. (Penn himself often lamented the lack of range of press copies of his images.) This book will provide a full experience of the work that he created. If one reads critically, it also provides a subtext of the life of an artist who was always reaching for better creations but failed to see what was missing in his art.

Most of the articles are the usually laudatory prose. In only one did I find an effort to identify what was missing from the photographer's work. In writing about the ethnographic portraits of natives of residents of places like Benin and New Guinea, Harald E. L. Prins suggests that the works are more representative of the culture and beliefs of the society from which Penn came, and by inference, of the makeup of the artist who created them.

Readers may find it useful to keep in mind the distinction between form and content in art while perusing this book. Some will say that it is the role of form to explicate the content. (Ansel Adams once said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept".) It is clear that Penn was always concerned with the play of light and shadows. He reprinted many of his color photographs in black and white, emphasizing the range of light. As his career progressed, he went from photographing nudes of elegant models to those of fat women, where he could better show the effects of light and shadow. He began to hand paint art paper with platinum for his prints to get denser blacks and brighter whites.

Despite all of these efforts, some say that he never achieved the success of his slightly younger contemporary, Richard Avedon, who seemed to be more concerned with revealing his subjects. One can see transitions in the lives of great artists. The works of the young Rembrandt show much more hope than the older painter and his portraits from his final years reveal great sadness. Unfortunately, Penn never seems to have found the way to develop a deeper vision of his subjects. His prints of cigarette butts are magnificent works in the use of shadow and light but despite the allegations of one of the book's essayists, show nothing about the role of tobacco or the discarding of spent objects that provided one pleasure. (Consider for example Picasso's paintings of Dora Marr from the beginning to the end of their relationship.)

Yet, despite Penn's search (and my view of its ultimate failure), this is a magnificent book. It will provide a comprehensive view of the work of one of the great artists of the twentieth century, despite his inability to find a vision.