Second year Fashion and Dress History student Hon Yan Lau discusses visiting a retrospective of the work of photographer Irving Penn
Over the Christmas break, I visited the best exhibition I have ever seen. This was the touring work of famed American fashion photographer, Irving Penn (1917-2009). The exhibition, held at Paris’s Grand Palais, was organized by The Réunion des musées nationaux in France- Grand Palais with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in conjunction with the Irving Penn Foundation. It was the first major retrospective of Penn’s seventy year career since his death in 2009 and the 235 photographic prints provided insights into his vision, work and life.
In the exhibition, the curators focused on eleven aspects of his career: ‘still life and early street photography’, ‘existential portraits’ (1947-1948), ‘In Vogue’ (1947-1951), ‘Cuzco’ (1948), ‘Small Trades’ (1950-1951), ‘Classic Portraits’ (1948-1962), ‘Nudes’ (1949-1950), ‘Worlds in a Small Room’, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Late Still Life’ and ‘Time Capsules’. Penn’s works left a significant impact both on the fashion world and on photography and the exhibition highlighted his methods of working. Before he shot his sitters, for example, he would have a long conversation with them in order to put them at ease and to get the best out of them. He said: “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world […] Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe”.
The existential portraits section – my favourite part of the exhibition – included many familiar faces such as boxing legend Joe Louis, Audrey Hepburn, Yves Saint Laurent, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Penn converted colour photos to black and white in order to bring out the sitters’ emotion and expression, saying: “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it; it is, in one word, effective.”
Irving Penn was shown at the Grand Palais from 21 September 2017 to 29 January 2018