Master photographer Irving Penn (American, b. 1917) will exhibit a recent body of 32 photographs for the first time in Underfoot: Photographs by Irving Penn, on view in the Julien Levy Gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from July 10-November 28, 2004.
Penn continues to find beauty and meaning in the discarded objects of the everyday landscape. In 1999, he turned his attention to patches of chewing gum on the sidewalks of New York City, a mundane subject explored with a poetic spirit in this exhibition. The power of his perception is immediately evident in the series’ first image, Underfoot I, a silver print that observes a folded, twisted wad of gum. Penn’s portrait of its fleshy form evokes his photographs of female nudes in the 1940s and 1950s, which were celebrated for their sensitive focus on the subjects’ torsos.
"Photographed close-up and exquisitely printed, these humble subjects are monumentalized by Irving Penn and revealed as engaging, organic forms of fascinating and endless variation," said Katherine Ware, Curator of Photographs. "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."
The work is reminiscent of the startling images Penn created in the early 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.
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 while building a legacy as one of the great fashion photographers of the 20th century. Born in Plainfield, N.J. in 1917, he studied advertising design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art from 1934-1938 with Alexey Brodovitch. While training for a career as an art director, Penn worked for two summers at Harper’s Bazaar as an assistant illustrator and art designer. After taking time off to paint in Mexico, Penn began working at Vogue with art director Alexander Liberman. Although he was hired to develop cover ideas, Penn photographed his first cover for the October 1943 issue and continues to work with the magazine today. Penn's first book was Moments Preserved (1960), and he is also widely known for Worlds in a Small Room (1974).
An expert in the use of cameras of virtually every type and format, Penn has photographed in color and black-and-white and used different printing processes and techniques such as multiple exposure and platinum. His work is included in many important photographic collections, including those of The Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Housing some 150,000 works of art, the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is nationally recognized for the breadth and depth of its collections as well as the flair and scholarship of its exhibitions. The Department presents rotating installations of its vast holdings in the Berman and Stieglitz Galleries and the Julien Levy Gallery on the Museum’s ground floor and the Eglin Gallery on the first floor. Individual works are also on view in the Museum’s permanent collection galleries.