Irving Penn – Centennial: Bringing the legend to life

Irving Penn (1917-2009) is known as one the most influential photographers of the 20th century. Over his nearly 70-year career, the New York native created unique images ranging from portraits and nudes to peculiar close-ups of cigarettes. This year would’ve marked Penn’s 100th birthday, and in honour of his legacy the C/O museum in Berlin is showcasing some of his most memorable work.

“Photography is just the present stage of man’s visual history.”

This quote by Penn is the first thing one sees when entering the exhibition. Penn’s words appear on the walls throughout, along with information of all the phases of his career. Most pictures are in black and white, their contrasts amplified by the dark grey walls which they hang on.

The exhibition is divided into the different themes which Penn worked around. He becomes more and more dimensional as the pictures go on. He shot fashion for Vogue, photographed some of New York’s elite, but also travelled to South America to capture the images of struggling locals. In addition to people, Penn was also fascinated by objects, beautiful or rugged. At times he would compose them strategically or simply let them be as they are.

When it comes to portraits, one can wonder how a photographer manages to make their model feel comfortable in front of the camera. Penn had a distinct method of his own: Staging the picture in a corner of two plain walls, creating an intimate space between him and the model. When looking at the images, the people in front of the camera aren’t smiling or laughing that often, but there is a sense of trust in their eyes. Penn knows what he’s doing, and they can see it. In one of the rooms of the exhibition, one can try the cornering method themselves: There are two panels set up forming a corner, and a tripod which one can attach their phone to and take a picture. For a fleeting moment, anyone can imagine themselves as Penn or one of his famous models.

Where Penn’s own imagination and creativity really shows, are his “still life” images. He would take a scenario, an everyday moment, and collect objects within that context. He would arrange them aesthetically and snap a photo. A compelling piece called “Theatre Accident” shows a glitzy handbag lying open on the floor, and personal belongings such as theatre goggles, keys, a pen and some pills falling out. It is uncomfortable and glamorous at the same time, as a night at the theatre might be. A personal story is told just through objects.

The still life pictures were some of Penn’s first work for American Vogue, where he worked throughout his career. Through working in fashion he also met his wife, a Swedish model named Lisa Fonssagrives, and they shot several covers together. But Vogue wasn’t only interested in fashion, they wanted to have multi-faceted content: an example of this is Penn photographing the people of Cuzco in their traditional clothes for the December 1949 issue. The process of how he approached the locals and their interaction is explained in text nearby the images, bringing the viewer along for Penn’s journey.

While Penn is mostly known for his portraits, he was a man of many interests. One of his most baffling works was a photo series of burnt, dumped cigarettes. The close-up images push the viewer to confront their feelings about smoking and figure out whether a dangerous object can still be appreciated solely for its visual appearance. The subject of appreciating traditionally unpleasant objects, such as metal waste or decaying flowers, continues in the last couple of galleries.

A visitor of the exhibition gets a broad overview of Penn’s life and times, professional and a little bit of the personal. He died at the age of 92, leaving behind an enormous body of work. The perception left is not so much of a genius, but a humble man who just liked to work hard and explore all that intrigued him. Perhaps that is the quality behind most successful people.