At the de Young, Irving Penn’s Genius Is On Full Display

“Penn knew all about the people he photographed and was able to lead the conversation to get people to react to him."

A black and white portrait of a Hells Angel
Hells Angel (Doug), San Francisco, 1967. Gelatin silver print. Image: 18 13/16x 19 11/16 in. (47.8 x 50 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation, 2021. © The Irving Penn Foundation

There is no photographer in history quite like Irving Penn. He built a bridge between commercial photography and fine art photography. He helped define the Vogue aesthetic and overwrote popular ideas about beauty with his trailblazing fashion photography. And he shot everything, from celebrities to still lifes, with the same thoughtful intensity. He’s arguably one of the top artists of the 20th Century, and his work is as relevant as ever.

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It’s also the subject of a new exhibition at the de Young museum at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: a retrospective simply called “Irving Penn.” Roughly 175 images are on view, spanning every decade of the famous photographer’s storied and celebrated seventy-year career.

A wide gallery space with different shades of putple walls
Installation view of “Irving Penn”, de Young, San Francisco, 2024. Photo by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The show starts with documentary scenes of New York from the late 1930s, when Penn first took up a camera and took his first amateur snaps, and then segues into his famed celebrity portraits and fashion photography. It also includes his vivid photos of counterculture featuring, among others, members of the Hells Angels and then-local rock band, the Grateful Dead. And his still-life photography is exceptional. My favorite photo of Penn’s is After-Dinner Games, New York, shot in 1947, with its playing cards, chess pieces and dice gathered artfully around a cup of coffee, or maybe Still Life with Watermelon, New York, also taken in 1947, which is composed with all the care of an Old Master painting.

A black and white portrait of rock and rollers including Grateful Dead members
Rock Groups (Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Grateful Dead), San Francisco, 1967. Platinum-palladium print. Image: 19 in. × 19 3/4 in. (48.3 × 50.2 cm). The Irving Penn Foundation. © The Irving Penn Foundation

If this all sounds familiar, that may be because “Irving Penn” first opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has since traveled. The only West Coast showing of the retrospective adds a local bent. De Young visitors will see Penn’s shots from the Summer of Love in 1967, which chronicle bands, hippies, youth culture and activists who revolted against the Vietnam War. He was in the city on assignment from Look magazine and invited regular people into his studio, where he rolled down a concrete-colored backdrop and took beautifully honest portraits. He also photographed the experimental dance group San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop, led by founder and post-modern choreographer Anna Halprin.

Remember, Penn shot long before Photoshop could magically touch up our flaws. The perfection of his analog photos is in the light, the composition and the shadows. There are experimental shots, like the mouth covered in various shades of lipstick for L’Oreal taken in 1986, and of course, the portraits of iconic celebrities that take us back in time.

A black and white portrait of Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn, Paris, 1951. Gelatin silver print. Image: 13 3/4 x 13 7/16 in. (35 x 34.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation, 2021. © Condé Nast.

Standouts in the exhibition include stunning shots of Marlene Dietrich looking back in awe in New York, a smiling audrey hepburn shot in Paris, as well as images of Yves Saint Laurent, Truman Capote and Joan Didion. There are also photos of street vendors in Peru and several photos of Swedish muse, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, who was Penn’s wife from 1950 to her death in 1992 and is widely considered the first supermodel. Some of the best photos in the show feel like photos of friends, from his portrait of the architect Le Corbusier from 1947 to shots of artists like Georgia O’Keefe and Pablo Picasso.

Looking back on his studio portraits, one only wishes one could go back and be a fly on the wall. Penn’s former assistant Robert Freson, who worked alongside the photographer for thirteen years, has described in detail how Penn approached portraiture. “He had his own method: very isolated in studios or sometimes on location,” Freson said in a 2022 interview at age 95. “It was just Penn, the subject and I. No unnecessary sounds. He would concentrate by speaking to them very peacefully while sitting on a high stool behind the camera.”

A black and white portrait of Issy Miyake
Issey Miyake, New York, May 16, 1988. Gelatin silver print. 15 11/16 x 15 11/16 in. (39.8 x 39.8 cm.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation, 2021. © The Irving Penn Foundation

Conversation was apparently key to the photographer’s studio-based process and how he managed to capture such authenticity in his subjects.

“Penn knew all about the people he photographed and was able to lead the conversation to get people to react to him. Then he would photograph them. Once he established the circumstance to take the photograph, he would stay with it. At a certain point, he got through to the reality of the person behind the facade—and that moment is valid forever.”

Irving Penn” is on view in the de Young museum’s Herbst Exhibition Galleries through July 21.

At the de Young, Irving Penn’s Genius Is On Full Display