“I can get obsessed by anything if I look at it long enough. That’s the curse of being a photographer.” Irving Penn (b. 1917), began his journey at a time when the medium was primarily used as a mode of communication. The practitioner redefines the trade as an art form, creating a diverse and distinctive body of work. Regarded as a master of nude, fashion, still-life and portraiture genres, the innovator remains influential into the 21st century. A major retrospective at C/O Berlin marks his centenary, featuring around 240 iconic works from a 70-year career.
A concern with the human condition drives the artist’s practice, inspiring not only the 160 covers for Vogue that made his name, but also global travels to locations such as Peru, New Guinea and Morocco. Ethnographic studies of indigenous communities are accompanied by portraits of creative individuals – including Salvador Dalí, Audrey Hepburn and Saul Steinberg – as well as The Small Trades, a collection investigating the lives of labourers, tradesmen and shopkeepers. An interest in the everyday existence of individuals pervades the photographer’s oeuvre, celebrating the unexpected beauty in the mundane by breaking down spatial and social boundaries.
Each composition features a neutral, pared-down backdrop, and encourages subjects to pose in surprising ways within an abstracted, delimited space. Forging a sense of familiarity and intimacy with the person in front of the camera, Penn’s focus on meticulous detail – alongside a formal fascination with the interplay of light and form – inspires masterful renderings of human, natural and inanimate subjects. Still lives from the 1990s and 2000s exemplify this, ennobling familiar items with a sense of gravitas, clarity and elegance.
From 24 March. Find out more: www.co-berlin.org.
1. Girl with Tobacco on Tongue (Mary Jane Russell), New York, 1951 © Condé Nast