When Irving Penn was in his 90s, he donated several bodies of work to museums around the U.S. and made plans to maintain his photographic legacy. Some of these institutions have shown portions of these collections since his death in 2009. But in anticipation of his centennial in 2017, the Irving Penn Foundation worked with the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to organize two large retrospectives that display his prodigious versatility.
The first of these, “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty,” debuted at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2015 and opened at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, in Nashville in February, where it is on view until May 29. (It moves to Pittsburgh and Wichita later this year.) It features more than 140 photos, 100 of which were donated by the Irving Penn Foundation to the Smithsonian’s collection. It encompasses every phase of Penn’s 70-year career, from his early, surreal experimentations to his witty color still lifes for Vogue and lots in between. The show’s title calls attention to Penn’s sometimes startling choice of subject matter, and his ability to take mundane subjects—such as crumpled cigarette butts or a stack of frozen vegetables—and elevate them with the elegance and monumentality of sculpture.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which received a gift of more than 150 Penn photographs, will be the site of the larger of the two retrospectives. “Irving Penn: Centennial,” which opened April 24 and is on view until July 30, features more than 200 photographs, including still lifes, fashion images, street scenes, nudes and studio portraits of urban laborers, masked indigenous people from New Guinea, Quechua children from Peru, as well as cultural figures such as Picasso, Colette and Truman Capote. Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in Charge of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs, and Maria Morris Hambourg, an independent curator and a former Met colleague, selected the images as well as a tearsheets to illustrate the context in which Penn shot for clients.
Both exhibitions provide an opportunity to revel in Penn’s creativity. Whether he was photographing friends in his studio or crafting an illustration for a Vogue story, he put deliberate care and thoughtfulness into each image. He didn’t dabble in different genres: He mastered them. His dedication didn’t waver. Among the most recent works on display are images he shot for Vogue when he was in his 80s. In an age of quickly made images and passing trends, these centennial exhibitions celebrate a meticulous artist dedicated to craftsmanship. —Holly Stuart Hughes