To celebrate famed fashion photographer Irving Penn (1917–2009) and the centennial of his birth, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will present the most comprehensive retrospective of his work to date in the exhibition “Irving Penn: Centennial,” opening April 24 with an accompanying book of the same name. The museum will showcase over 200 of Penn’s most groundbreaking photographs, including shots of Marlene Dietrich, Truman Capote, and Naomi Sims as featured in the slideshow ahead.
In a career spanning nearly seven decades, Penn was known best for the simple elegance of his photographs, created by the absence of anything inessential. As a fashion photographer for Vogue, his portraits of artists became iconic, including Grace Kelly, Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso. He also captured still lifes — of carefully arranged food, cigarette butts, and products from brands like Clinique for advertising campaigns. His wife, the model Lisa Fonssagrives, was his favorite subject, as were the native people in New Guinea and Morocco, where he often traveled.
The exhibition’s photography book explores the stories behind the photographs you’ll see at the museum, tracing various times and facets of Penn’s life. Some of the most interesting details describe Penn’s inner conflict between his personal taste and the demands of working in mainstream fashion. In the 1960s, while he was still working at Vogue, his minimalist style often clashed with inflated and extravagant trends of the era. One chapter in the book revisits Penn’s temporary falling out with Vogue in 1972, when his approach differed from the more theatrical preferences of then-editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland.
For many years, Penn also faced the advertising world. “Photography disturbs me when it is used as propaganda, however benign,” he once said. “I am especially sensitive to this because it is an area of personal struggle in my work. Since I have been a commercial photographer almost all of my professional life I have come now to yearn for a personal photography that does not try to manipulate anyone.” He continued to produce advertisements until 1970, when he narrowed his focus to prioritize his passion for fashion and cosmetics photography.