I have to tell y'all. I'm not an "art person" by nature, so when something speaks to me or moves me at a gallery, I feel really compelled to talk about it. (And not in silly, undergrad ways, which I'm sure I definitely did back in the day. Juxtaposition, juxtaposition, juxtaposition.)
Right now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, you can see Irving Penn: Centennial, a "major retrospective of of the photographs of Irving Penn to mark the centennial of the artist's birth." (See, I quote it, because I literally don't know how to talk about what it is.)
When you see it (from now until July 30), you'll find so many things to love, and that's what I like most about the whole experience. Because Penn was such a dynamic person and photographer (from shooting the haute-est of haute couture to doing portraits of everyday people), you're sure to find things that move you. That's art, by definition, I think. Here's what moved me the most.
#1. Fashion, baby. Penn shot for Vogue for 60 years, so seeing his work is like a mini-fashion history session. I loved reading about how he shot couture in the '50s in a daylight studio that was at the top of a photography school. It was accessible only by rickety stairs. It wasn't a fancy location, but it felt private and perfect for the kind of intimate work he wanted to create.
#1.5 Carolyn Murphy (in this Penn image from 1997). Carolyn Murphy is the American Kate Moss. I say that, not to compare her to another model, but just to let you know what a big deal she is! She is and has been a huge, consistent star since the '90s, and although she's everywhere (latest: J. Crew), I think it's safe to say she's not a household name.
Fun fact: She was born/raised in the Panama City Beach area, which is an area where I vacationed with my family as a child. Let's just say it is not an area that you'd think would give birth to a legendary mega-model.
#2 The raison d'etre. It's clear that Penn's mission was to capture the spirit of his subjects. He wanted more out of them than just an image. He wanted a feeling. A piece of their heart and soul. To get beyond the personality. He always created the space for them to do this. There's a series shown, where he basically cornered his subjects with the walls of his set, in order to evoke emotion.
Sometime in 1948 I began photographing portraits in a small corner space made of two studio flats pushed together, the floor covered with a piece of old carpeting. A very rich series of pictures resulted. This confinement, surprisingly, seemed to comfort people, soothing them.
The walls were a surface to lean on or push against. For me the picture possibilities were interesting; limiting the subjects' movement seemed to relieve me of part of the problem of holding on to them.
There's a story about how he was shooting Picasso, Penn wanted a quiet, non-showy moment, as if he were waiting for him to chill out a bit. Then he snapped this shot, and cropped in, for max effect. Penn ain't playing!
3. His love for Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn. She was his favorite couture model in the 1950's, and they later married and were together for decades. I love thinking about how they worked together, as collaborators – genius and muse, husband and wife, photographer and model. She may be the world's first supermodel, so there's that. (Sorry, Janice Dickinson.)
Their life together really influenced his work, up until the end, which you can learn more about at the exhibit (I won't give it all away here). Their story is so beautiful and touching, and it will make an amazing movie some day.
PLUS, in a very cool move, you can see the simple theatre curtain backdrop he used for decades. Amazing. So historic. People took selfies in front of it, but I didn't dare. It's like a sacred space. I loved seeing the wear and tear, right in the center where all the action happened.
Even if you're not an art person, either, let yourself be moved by this. Take an afternoon, turn off your phone, immerse yourself, and feel what it's like to witness someone who's spent their life and career digging into the joys and pains and complexities of life. It's a truly beautiful thing.