One Fine Show: Irving Penn’s San Francisco Summer of Love

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

A black and white photo of a nuclear family
Irving Penn. ‘Hippie Family (Kelley),’ San Francisco, 1967. Platinum-palladium print. 16 5/8 × 14 3/16 in. (42.2 × 36 cm). The Irving Penn Foundation

The other day, Page Six dropped a gossip item about the pressure Anna Wintour faces over TikTok’s sponsorship of the Met Gala, in light of the app’s recent ban, and I thought about how hard it would be to explain all that to someone from the time when Vogue launched, at the turn of the last century. Technology aside, you’d have to explain that fashion has become perhaps the dominant form of culture, and that Vogue has become much more than a frivolity for Edith Warton-style ladies.

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The photographer Irving Penn played no small part in the growth of the magazine, to which he contributed for six decades. He brought an artistic sensibility to a medium that wasn’t thought to be particularly high-minded. All of his career is celebrated at a new show that bears his name at the de Young Museum but was, in fact, organized by the Met. The exhibition brings together around 175 diverse works that showcase his range, showing his ability to capture blue-collar workers alongside Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, Gianni Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Truman Capote and Joan Didion.

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There’s a dedicated section that taps into the local flavor with Penn’s photographs from the 1967 San Francisco Summer of Love. There are nude people hugging, the Hell’s Angels and of course, the Grateful Dead, and then a curious series on hippie parents and couples that stands out because it shrugs off obvious narratives about radicalism and promiscuity. You can tell much about a person by seeing their partner and the body language between them. These families all exude a great deal of love, and not necessarily the free kind. I’m sure the photos were a revelation at the time for the way they humanized these hippies. They might even manage to make you feel warm toward the baby boomers of today.

As for the celebrities, it is somewhat impressive that the same man photographed Marcel Duchamp and Nicole Kidman, but aren’t all of these big names known for their charisma? Penn really shows his muscles when he’s getting weird, as in his series of smoked cigarettes. Anyone can make Gisele look good, but luxuriating in the other kind of butt shows real talent. The catalogue draws wise parallels to Phillip Guston and Kurt Schwitters.

Also great are his abstract nudes from 1949 and 1950, a specific period during which he was obsessed with the tummies of headless women and how they change and move in various positions. Around the same time he would capture small trades like Steel Mill Firefighter (1951)  and here too the body’s position is important. If you’re defined by your job and asked to fall into its muscle memory positions, you can’t help but notice the way some always seem to make you look happy, as in Butcher (1950). Pity the Coal Man (1950). If anyone ever captured the Vogue Photographer (1940s-2000s), he probably looked like he was having a blast.

Irving Penn” is on view at the de Young Museum through July 21.

One Fine Show: Irving Penn’s San Francisco Summer of Love