Irving Penn, Resonance

Palazzo Grassi
13/04/2014 - 06/01/2015


From April 13, 2014, to January 6, 2015, Palazzo Grassi presents “Irving Penn, Resonance”, an exhibition curated by Pierre Apraxine and Matthieu Humery and dedicated to one of the major photographers in the 20th century, Irving Penn.

The exhibition includes 82 platinum prints, 29 gelatin silver prints, 5 dye transfer prints and 17 internegatives, which are exhibited for the first time. The show is not a retrospective and does not follow a chronological order, but aims to underline the development of styles, interests and techniques used by Irving Penn by focusing on the main themes tackled by the artist during his entire career: from a series of portraits of celebrities from the world of art, cinema and literature to the tribesmen from New Guinea, from still life photography to the “small trades” and nude studies. This broad overview of the famous photographer’s work puts relatively unknown images side-by-side with the most iconic ones, thereby revealing the diversity in Irving Penn’s work, which is in itself an invaluable legacy to the world of photography.


Irving Penn (1917-2009), one of the 20th century’s photographic masters, is renowned for his iconic images of high fashion and his extraordinary portraits of artists, writers and celebrities, which have left their mark on the cultural landscape of their time.

After studying design, painting and graphic design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, in 1943 Penn became assistant to Alexander Liberman, art director of Vogue. With Liberman’s support, Penn soon began to show an extraordinary talent behind the lens: on October 1, 1943, when he was just 26, he had his first Vogue cover published. From that moment until the end of his career, he worked for the magazine, where he established himself as its most innovative professional photographer.

Penn was first and foremost a studio photographer. His images, with their simple paper, fabric or bare wall backgrounds, establish a space in which this subjects are presented in their material dimension. Whether an image of high fashion, ethnography, a still life or memento mori, his intense and magnetic photographs remove the subjects from their context.

At the end of the 1940s, he made his Earthly Bodies series. These images of the nude present anonymous bodies next to each other in abstract and impersonal compositions. The antithesis of his ‘assignment’ photographs for Vogue, these images show Penn’s complete control of developing photographs as he experimented and mastered platinum printing, a technique that enabled him to obtain photographs with unlimited tonal variations.

During the same years, Penn made his renowned series of portraits of artists, writers and famous figures, which remain imprinted in our collective memory. Marlene Dietrich, Alfred Hitchcock, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and among those he ‘placed in the corner’, immortalising them squeezed into the corner of a room, thus presenting an ironic perspective of their artistic or intellectual stature.

In the early 1950s, Penn focused on the series, Small Trades: he portrayed coal merchants, paper sellers, firemen and fish sellers, first in Paris and London in 1950 and then in New York in 1951. He would ask his subjects to come to his studio in their work clothes and with the tools of their trade. Penn found this contact with workers very satisfying, and was struck by the pride they invested in their modest careers and by their awareness of their social position. Remembering these encounters, the photographer described this series as “residual images of enchantment”.

Over the following decades, as Penn continued to work for Vogue, he travelled the world photographing tribal communities in Africa and South America. During these journeys, he set up a temporary studio to capture members of an ancient society, with their traditional masks and clothes, at risk of extinction.

Irving Penn died in 2009 at 92 years of age.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC (2015-16) and the Art Institute of Chicago (2013) have both dedicated important exhibitions to Irving Penn. ln 2014, Palazzo Grassi held an Irving Penn retrospective called “Resonance”, featuring works almost entirely from the Pinault collection.