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Irving Penn: Anxious American Photographer

Exhibit at the de Young in San Francisco

Jonah Raskin
May 03, 2024
‘Woman in Chicken Hat’ (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn)

Irving Penn/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. © The Irving Penn Foundation

‘Woman in Chicken Hat’ (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn)

Irving Penn/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. © The Irving Penn Foundation

In 1967 at the age of 50, Irving Penn—the prince of American fashion photographers—arrived in San Francisco on assignment for Look magazine, commissioned by the editors to capture with his camera the Summer of Love. Penn didn’t attend the Monterey International Pop Festival or sleep in a crash pad in the Haight-Ashbury—which gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson dubbed the “Hashbury.” But he quickly photographed “hippie families,” as Look called them, Hells Angels and their bikes, the members of the Grateful Dead, including Jerry Garcia, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, with Janis Joplin. Plus the nude men and women who belonged to the avant-garde San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop.

One hundred and seventy-five of Penn’s most arresting photographs—including one of Audrey Hepburn posing as an adorable pixie—and most of them in black and white, are on exhibit at the de Young in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. They are labeled and dated and spaced amply apart for optimal viewing. The de Young launched the exhibit on March 12. It runs until July 21. Vogue calls the Penn show “a reminder—should we need it—of his enduring genius.”

The de Young exhibit originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017, on the hundredth anniversary of the photographer’s birth and in conjunction with the publication of a handsome, glossy, 371-page coffee table book with illuminating essays by scholars and critics. The book, Irving Penn: Centennial, with a photo of the photographer on the cover is for sale at the de Young.

Penn’s photos of the California counterculture were published in 1968 in an eight-page spread titled “The Incredibles,” as though to say that the Bay Area scene was not to be believed. In many ways it wasn’t and so it didn’t last. Fortunately, Penn captured it.

His photographs for Look showed that once again he was in the right time and the right place, whether it was New York in the 1940s, Paris in the 1950s, San Francisco in the 1960s, and the Third World in the 1970s at a time when indigenous cultures were rapidly undermined by modern technology, commerce, and industry. “We had used up the world,” Penn observed. He made the point he wanted to make without using explicit political terms like colonialism and imperialism.

For 66 years, “Mr. Penn,” as he was called, and never Irving, worked along with Richard Avedon as one of the premier photographers at Vogue magazine. After his retirement, the Vogue editors described his career as “incredible.” For decades, he photographed almost every world celebrity, from boxer Joe Louis and filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, to artist Marcel Duchamp and a group portrait of the “12 most glamorous models” of the 1940s, including his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives. At the end, he made sure to photograph Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Still, he never photographed, as Avedon did, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and Jerry Rubin. Perhaps they were too freakish for him. As an outsider, even when he was commercially successful, he used his camera to investigate indigenous cultures and to become a kind of insider. In his studio he was the boss, even when Marlene Dietrich tried to tell him what to do. He told her to be Marlene Dietrich and let him be the photographer. Nothing was left to chance and nothing was spontaneous. Everything and everyone was arranged by the producer, director, and script writer, Mr. Penn.

What the book and the exhibit strongly suggest is that Penn pursued his career with passion, integrity, and with immense technical skill, and yet also with a sense of unease that bordered on a kind of anxiety that fueled his career and creativity.

While he photographed dozens of ordinary products like soap and Jell-0, as well as luxury goods like perfume, he felt that his work in the field of advertising, for which he was well paid, was not his best work. “Photography disturbs me when it is used as propaganda,” he noted. He yearned, he said, for “personal photography that does not try to manipulate anyone.” He grumbled; his editors tolerated his demand for absolute control until they complained that he was taking too many photos of tall, skinny women.

From the world of skinny women, Penn fled to working-class enclaves in Paris and London where he photographed skilled laborers and craftsmen, and then traveled to Peru and New Guinea to photograph indigenous people. Perhaps more than any other 20th-century photographer he had a sense of wanderlust that took him around the world. Though he mostly took photos in cities, he wanted, he explained, to be “deposited among the disappearing aborigines in the remote parts of the world and to make records of their physical presence.”

The modern photographer, Penn wrote, “finds something of himself in everything and something of everything in himself.” That observation seems to be true for him, though there are no signs in his pictures of his birth and upbringing in an immigrant American Jewish family. His father changed his name from Chaim Michelsohn to Harry William Penn after he arrived in 1908 at Ellis Island from czarist Russia and became a skilled watchmaker.

In an essay in the book, Irving Penn: Centennial, Harald E.L. Prins—a professor of anthropology—explains tactfully that Penn’s photos “reflect certain important ways the time, place and context of their making.” His images of bare breasted Black women in Dahomey will be familiar to those who once gazed at the photos of “native” women in National Geographic and found them “exotic.” Still, as Prins allows, Penn’s photos of people in the Third World have cultural value. In their own quiet way they call for the preservation of indigenous cultures.

Perhaps the campaign to which he adhered most strenuously was the campaign against the use of tobacco. After years of smoking cigarettes and taking glamorized photos for the tobacco industry, Penn went to work for the American Cancer Society and depicted the habit of smoking cigarettes as dirty and disgusting. He took dozens of photos of crushed, soiled cigarette butts that his assistants gathered from the streets of New York. They, too, record a time, and place, when smoking was acceptable behavior.

Vogue—and as a younger generation of photographers like Annie Leibovitz made their presence felt and their images known in the pages of Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Penn created a vast, diverse body of work that still seems incredible.

Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman. His new book of poetry is The Thief of Yellow Roses (Regent Press).