“Irving Penn: Platinum Prints”

No photographer has tackled both high beauty and, well, trash more compellingly than Irving Penn. Penn, born in 1917, is best known for his fashion photography for ’50s-era haute-couture magazines. But as the National Gallery of Art’s “Irving Penn: Platinum Prints” makes clear, he had a stunningly diverse career, making portraits of intellectuals, ethnographic studies, depictions of refuse, and still lifes. Seventy of his platinum/palladium prints are included in the exhibition, which follows Penn’s 2002 donation to the museum of both the prints and 17 collages made from his preliminary test strips, 12 of which serve as the organizing principle of the show.

Platinum prints, first developed in the 19th century, have always been treasured for their unusually subtle tonal range and extreme detail. The shortages of World War I forced severe cutbacks in the production of platinum materials, and even small-batch manufacturing petered out well before Penn began experimenting with the process, in the early 1960s. So Penn conducted historical research and experimented with chemical mixes for several years before settling on a process that worked, one that used both platinum and palladium and required multiple exposures from the same negative. It’s easy to see the payoff in the National Gallery show: The prints almost always have fine detail and rich sepia tones—a timeless look suitable for almost any subject.

Penn possesses the sine qua non of any good portraitist: the ability to find, and communicate, the spark within whomever he was presented with. And rather than photographing his subjects within their own environments—as did contemporaries such as Arnold Newman—he deployed only a blank backdrop or his own studio. It’s a purer, more old-fashioned approach, and, most would agree, a tougher assignment—one in which the details become crucial. Penn’s 1947 portrait of literary lion Edmund Wilson, for instance, is notable for the subject’s gaze, so piercing that it seems to follow the viewer around the gallery. Playwright Jean Cocteau, standing with one leg perched on a chair in 1948, is seen with his knee seemingly emerging from his chest while his hand is thrust, Napoleon-style, into his clothing—a motley mix of a checked vest, striped tie, solid pants, and plaid tweed jacket. And in a 1957 head shot of a septuagenarian Pablo Picasso, one can see the reflection of a sunlit window in his glistening eyeball.

Penn sometimes coaxed or collaborated with his subjects to flesh out their images in unexpected ways. He often wedged subjects into a corner to see how they reacted to the tight confines. In 1972, Woody Allen dressed up as Charlie Chaplin, complete with makeup and fake mustache. Saul Steinberg, a cartoonist known for his sometimes cryptic pen-and-ink creations, appeared in 1966 wearing an enormous rectangular mask; only a pair of vacant eyeholes and a nose represent the artist himself. Most impressively, in 1964 Penn photographed the sculptor David Smith fiddling with a pipe in his mouth, allowing viewers a clear view of Smith’s scarred thumbnail, presumably injured in the course of his work molding his signature geometric shapes of burnished metal.

Penn found as much of interest in the ordinary as the elite, photographing a colorful selection of workmen in Paris, London, and New York, all of them compellingly. In Marchand de Concombres, Paris (1950), a cucumber merchant is shown holding an enormous vegetable in one hand and several others in a rickety wooden box, though it’s the big tattoo of a flapper girl on his bare chest that steals the show. In Penn’s Vitrier, Paris (1950), the glass man’s face isn’t even visible, with the photographer focusing instead on the heavy wooden backpack frame that holds panes of glass high over the man’s head. And the subject’s jaunty grin in Rag and Bone Man, London (1950) draws us in as he lugs a bulging sack across the studio.

Some of Penn’s projects do not rise to this level of empathy. In Penn’s photographs of hippies, bikers, and rock musicians from the late ’60s, for instance, his formality seems distinctly out of step with a new, unruly generation of Americans. But with Penn’s other ethnographic work, done primarily in New Guinea in the early ’70s, the formal approach works well indeed.

By and large, the subjects of these portraits, many with spears or bows and arrows in hand, seem engaged and self-confident in front of the camera. In Three Asaro Mud Men, New Guinea (1970), a trio of men pose at the ready, smeared with mud and wearing just a bundle of leaves around their waists, their heads obscured by enormous clay masks. And in Man With Pink Face, New Guinea (1970), an elder gazes out wearing a dress of leaves, with a caked-on layer of mud, plant tendrils coming out of his nose, and a seemingly disintegrating head of curly hair; his glistening eyes contrast sharply with the deterioration suggested by his costume.

Of course, for all Penn’s supposed purity of vision, viewers should be cautious about how genuine such images are. The wall text makes a point of emphasizing that Penn lugged a blank canvas background all over the world so that the photographic sessions could proceed on neutral ground—neither Penn’s nor the sitters’. But the photographer perhaps protests too much. At one point, the wall text explains that Penn “quickly ‘commits’ to one pose and then slowly works his ‘way into the subjects’ through small, painstaking but critical modifications” of their poses. And given the finagling Penn did in crafting the images of Allen, Steinberg, and Picasso, it’s not a big leap to assume that he took a firm hand in shaping the way his ethnographic images turned out.

It is entirely possible, of course, that Penn has a blind spot about the ways his prerogatives as photographer affect his outcomes. It may be the arrogance of a great talent who believes he is above using the tricks from the common photographer’s bag, or perhaps the familiarity of someone who has been too close to his work for too long. But the National Gallery’s curators do little to counterbalance Penn’s biases.

Consider half-dozen or so still lifes in the exhibition—mixtures of objects such as skulls, machinery, and bottles. They are technically indifferent, often seeming washed out and, compared with the show’s other works, unnecessarily detail-free. More puzzlingly, they are also hilariously oversold by the wall text as an “improbable combination of disparate objects [that] serve as a meditation on the art of photography as a means of distilling the world’s phenomena.” For far better portrayals of inanimate objects, scrutinize Penn’s photographs of street trash, such as cigarette butts, which, in an unexpectedly satisfying act of transformation, he enlarged to monumental proportions, some nearly 60 cm by 50 cm. At that size, the butts and other detritus reveal far more intriguing patterns and shapes than we have any right to expect them to.

The collages Penn made from the test papers, touted in the press release as “reveal[ing] the diversity of his work and the unexpected juxtapositions between fashion and art, Western and non-Western ideals of beauty and adornment, and Penn’s personal and commercial work” are in reality far less enlightening. According to the catalog, the artist intended these collages to be “meditations” in the form of a “personal scrapbook,” in which he roamed freely throughout his archives to draw connections between disparate images. In reality, though, the linkages between a purse-lipped Marcel Duchamp and a ponchoed Peruvian man and child—to cite just two adjoining subjects in 1989’s Platinum Test Materials 4/17—are not immediately apparent. The act of mounting them together may have had personal meaning for the artist, but it adds little to the understanding of his work, particularly given their placement in the current show: The collages essentially recapitulate images that viewers have already seen in other rooms.

Another questionable curatorial judgment concerns the exhibition’s unquestioning fealty to the platinum process. The curators are right to argue that in most cases the technique adds to the appeal of Penn’s prints; in Vionnet Lampshade Dress (1925), New York (1974), for instance, it’s possible to scrutinize every single strand that makes up the garment—an act that would not have been possible while perusing the magazines that were Penn’s primary public forum during much of his career. Yet there is one key example in which the process’s finer tones and sharper resolution actually undercut a masterpiece.

The image in question is the 1950 Woman With Roses (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn in Lafaurie Dress), Paris. If you know just one Penn image, it’s probably this one—it’s been repeated often in photographic anthologies. In it, a woman (Penn’s wife, as it happens) models a tightly draped black dress; a bouquet of white roses is mounted on her extended left elbow, and her right hand extends from her waist, pointing off-image. The model’s face, at three-quarters pose, stares at us archly with pursed lips; one of her knees bends ever so slightly forward.

Former Museum of Modern Art photography curator John Szarkowski once praised the image as “a masterpiece of the genre.” In Looking at Photographs—published in 1973, four years before the platinum print in this show was made—Szarkowski wrote:

Perhaps the essential nature of this picture can be more clearly seen if one covers with a sheet of paper the model’s beautiful (and seemingly tiny) head. It is possible that only a modern viewer would be able to identify what remains as representing a woman’s body, rather than the silhouette of an orchid, or a scarified tribal priestess in ceremonial headdress, or the rhizome of an iris….The true subject of the photograph is the sinuous, vermicular, richly subtle line that describes the silhouetted shape.

The problem with the platinum-print version of this image is that, like a thong bikini, it reveals too much. Instead of the solid black form seen in a conventional print, the platinum-print version offers clear ripples, slight variations in tone, and the unmistakable texture of fabric. The mystery of the sinuous form is gone; we now know, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it’s just a dress.

The curators might have considered and commented on this phenomenon, but they did not. For all the benefits of “Irving Penn: Platinum Prints”—and there are many—there is a tendency for the exhibition to overlook and even indulge Penn’s penchants and predilections. It’s only natural that the museum’s leaders felt compelled to package for the public a gift from a figure so influential in 20th-century photography. But that doesn’t mean they had to wrap it up and put a bow on it. CP