Chewing it Over

From high fashion to lowly detritus, Irving Penn sees beauty.

By: Susan Van Dongen

"Underfoot XX" (above) and "Underfoot V" (below) from the series Underfoot by Irving Penn.

   AT age 87, the legendary Irving Penn still means to show us that he is looking around and — judging from his latest collection of photographs — down. He’s continually stretching the limits of his all-seeing photographic eye. And at an age when other artists put together retrospectives and memoirs, Mr. Penn also is pushing himself to try new approaches and techniques.
   With the black-and-white images that comprise an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for example, Mr. Penn has left his beloved studio to hit the streets of New York, making pictures of matches, wads of chewing gum and other detritus on the sidewalks.
   Underfoot: Photographs by Irving Penn, a total of 32 photographs taken in 2000, is on view at the museum’s Julien Levy Gallery July 10 to Nov. 28. Photographed close-up and printed with Mr. Penn’s usual precision, these humble subjects are made monumental, "revealed as engaging, organic forms of fascinating and endless variation," writes Katherine Ware, curator of photographs at the museum. "Bending over the sidewalks of New York with his lens, Penn arduously examines his subjects with an almost scientific scrutiny. These are not boisterous images of the street but lyrical ones, isolated from the flow of city life."


   For the octogenarian lensman, famous for capturing icon-like images of ’40s and ’50s haute couture as well as portraits of H. L. Mencken, Anais Nin and Tennessee Williams, making pictures of gum is quite a departure. However, one might have said the same thing about Edward Weston’s erotic photos of the peppers from his garden. Like Weston, Mr. Penn is taking something ordinary and getting us to really look at how the common things literally under our feet have line, texture and shape, like sculpture.
   "Penn wants you to apprehend ‘the thing’ and it’s the same with Weston," Ms. Ware says. "There’s a sense of revelation. They’re things he sees in our world — and he has a tremendous affection for them. It’s a prosaic subject but he treats it in a poetic way. Penn is not just putting it out there, he’s saying, ‘I’m going to show this to you. I see beauty and I want you to look.’ It’s the ‘seeing’ that makes the picture."
   The work is reminiscent of the images Penn created in the 1970s, when he turned away from fashion and portrait photography to focus his attention on photographing street trash. His large, stately photographs of cigarette butts, crushed paper cups, used ticket stubs and other debris transformed inconsequential subject matter into high art.
   "He refers to those as ‘street materials,’" Ms. Ware says. "The difference between this work and the new work is that, with the street materials, Penn brought them into the studio. He’s known for photographing very elite consumer goods, so the fact that he was in the exact same setting and bringing in things from the street and photographing them with the same level of meticulous attention was pretty radical.
   "In contrast, with this group, which were all were taken in 2000, Penn is working outdoors," she continues. "He’s photographing detritus in the street but in its own context. These things are part of the fabric of the street. Most of the time we don’t see them, but they are part of our world. It’s interesting to see how he has shown them back to us, which is part of the artist’s duty — to make us see things in a different way."
   Ms. Ware is impressed that Penn challenged himself, breaking away from his usual studio techniques to get out on the streets and make pictures.
   "It must have been an arduous task because he doesn’t make snapshots," Ms. Ware says. "He works very carefully and slowly. I can imagine the attention he got, people walking by saying, ‘What is he doing?’"
   Some critics might have wondered if Penn was taking advantage of his elder statesman status to play a little joke on the viewing public. How can the man who captured Picasso’s piercing gaze create art out of gum and matches? Ms. Ware says while there’s a lightheartedness to the photographs, the collection is not ironic in any way.
   "It’s a very serious investigation," she says. "The subject matter is just another starting point for him. The images have an anthropomorphic quality. We can appreciate them as abstract forms although our minds will want to turn them into something we can recognize."
   For example, Underfoot I, a silver print of a folded, twisted wad of gum, could evoke a ghostly smooth river stone or even a huddled human, echoing Penn’s portraits of female nudes.
   If you look closely, however, you also can see the similarities between his portraiture and the images inUnderfoot. A striking shot of Miles Davis is so full of texture, Penn transforms the musician’s cheekbones and eyes into two-dimensional sculpture, almost a bas-relief.
   "(It’s the same) with the intricacies of the shape of the gum," Ms. Ware says. "Penn also took some famous photos of Miles Davis’ hands where you really see the lines in his hands. The photos have an etched quality and show the passage of time and how it effects human beings. You might say, ‘Oh, it’s just a hand,’ but there’s so much to look at. That’s what he’s doing with these spots on the sidewalk. Penn has a powerful personal vision and it comes out in everything he shoots. There’s a real clarity in his composition. It’s very simple but packed with details."
   This clarity came through in a series of Penn’s works where he posed his subjects in a special corner he constructed in his studio, no props or frills — just a simple burlap background.
   "You’re just staring at the person and their own telling details," Ms. Ware says. "It seems to be his way of really making us look."
   Now in his seventh decade of work, Penn is renowned as one of the most versatile and influential contemporary photographers, excelling in portraiture, advertising and editorial photography. He is acknowledged as one of the great fashion photographers of the 20th century. Born in Plainfield June 16, 1917, Penn studied advertising design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) from 1934 to 1938. His major teacher and mentor was Alexey Brodovitch, the acclaimed graphic designer who was the art director at Harpers Bazaar from 1934 to 1958.
   Penn got his start at Harpers, interning there for two summers as an assistant illustrator and designer. He then settled into a position at Vogue, where he worked with famed art director Alexander Liberman. Although he was hired to develop cover ideas, Mr. Penn composed and photographed a still life, which ran on the cover of Vogue in October 1943. He continues to work with the magazine today.
   He is considered to be an expert in the use of cameras of virtually every type and format, as well as a master of printing and processing techniques. Penn’s work is housed in many important photographic collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.
   Interestingly, Mr. Penn had originally intended to focus his talents on painting and had considered photography more as a good job. (In fact, he’s quoted as saying, "I am a professional photographer because it is the best way I know to earn the money I require to take care of my wife and children.") As he sharpened his craft, however, his philosophy began to evolve and he saw that his commercial images could be artful as well.
   "Penn was somebody who didn’t see a distinction between the bodies of work that he did — he doesn’t see a division between the spheres," Ms. Ware says. "To him he’s just making pictures. Whether it’s a cake, a dress or the gum, it all can be art."
Underfoot: Photographs by Irving Penn is on view at the Julien Levy Gallery, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 26th Street, Philadelphia, July 10-Nov. 28. Museum hours: Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wed., Fri. 10 a.m.-8:45 p.m. Admission costs $10, seniors/students $7, pay-what-you-wish Sun. For information, call (215) 763-8100. On the Web: