Irving Penn: Centennial

Thoughts on an exhibition featuring one of the most significant and prolific photographers of the 20th century.

Irving Penn: Centennial is a great show. But it is not enough.

When I read that The Met had received a gift of more than 150 photographs by Penn from The Irving Penn Foundation, I was really looking forward to a show. Penn is one of the most significant and prolific photographers of the 20th century. He had a major impact on the world of photography as well as the world of art.

I really thought it was a great show, but I also felt it was a missed opportunity to mount a really fantastic show. It was too small. It was hung too tight. The rooms weren’t large enough to allow the photographs to breath, and there were major photographs missing. For example, Miles Davis and his hands, “Woman in Moroccan Palace,” a picture of his wife Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn made in Marrakesh in 1951. Or his group portraits of hippie families, the Hells Angels and rock musicians. And there were very few photographs from his flower series, or his still life photographs of steel blocks. Also missing were his fantastic studies of animal skulls photographed with special permission at the Narodini National Museum in Prague in 1986 for the series “Cranium Architecture.” Additionally, the series of photographs of couture dresses on mannequins he made that were inspired by a Diana Vreeland exhibition for the Costume Institute at The Met in 1973 was not shown.

It was wonderful to be able to take a look at one of Penn’s Rolleiflex cameras up close, and to take a selfie in front of the actual backdrop he used in many of his most famous photographs. It was also very interesting to compare side by side different prints he made of the same subject using different printing techniques as many as 40 many years apart. But it would have been even more interesting if the internegatives he used for that would have been on display.

In short, it was a wonderful show but I think a missed opportunity to do something spectacular with one of the most comprehensive photographers of the 20th century.

The Irving Penn: Centennial exhibition was on display at The Met from April 24-July 30, 2017.

This post was written by ThoughtMatter Art Director Johan Vipper. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District.