Photographic Memories: The Unseen World of Irving Penn

Penn cards

In the summer of 1950, in Paris, the most unlikely party in town was happening in a walk-up on the rue de Vaugirard. After lumbering up six flights of stairs, one might be astonished to find that the destination was a former photography school, sans water and electricity, but no matter. Everyone in town made that trek, and there stood the world’s great models, artists, and intellectuals alongside mailmen, pastry chefs, and vegetable sellers. The host was photographer Irving Penn, then in Paris to document the full spectrum of the “human comedy,” as one of his mentors, creative director Alexander Liberman, put it.

Penn was an intense and quiet man, but had a voracious appetite for character. Everyone and everything intrigued him.  Yet he was intensely private, and rarely turned the camera back on himself.   On the eve of a major new Penn retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lesley Blume spoke with Penn’s family, collaborators, and collectors to create an intimate portrait of a man dedicated to shining the spotlight on others.  She delves into his process and inspirations, documents his sleepless nights and curious portable studio, which he brought even to the wilds of Africa.  The story is a glimpse into the life someone considered by the Met to be “one of the most celebrated American artists of the 20th century.”

Photo: ‘After-Dinner Games’ by Irving Penn, 1947, © Conde Nast.

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