The 120-print exhibition Irving Penn Master Images, Co-organized by the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, included the American photographer’s famous fashion photographs, still lifes, nudes, ethnographic subjects, animal skulls and portraits.
Penn’s photographs are far more reminiscent of paintings and sculptures that photographs. His still lifes resemble 18th century Dutch paintings; his nudes allude to Picasso, Alexander Archipenko or Henry Moore; some of his fashion model portraits relate to Toulouse-Lautrec dance hall girls of the turn of the century. Although he works in traditional genres, his subjects often are unconventional-- street refuse, fleshy bodies or animal skulls. When carefully arranged by Penn before his camera, such unlovely materials create images that challenge conventional ideas about sources of beauty or elegance. Decay is a recurring motif-- raveled carpet, stains and cigarette ashes appear frequently in his otherwise elegant compositions.
His silver prints are uncommonly rich and brilliantly composed. Through long, meticulous experiment, he perfected a process of platinum printing in order to bring an even greater richness and subtlety to his images.