The photographer Irving Penn put Marcel Duchamp in a
corner, exposed Colette's forehead and swaddled Rudolf Nureyev's lithe
body in layers of winter clothing. His subjects, who included many of
the greatest creative talents of the 20th century, emerged from their
portrait sessions with their carefully shaped personas profoundly
Last spring, in its first foray into modern
photography, the Morgan Library & Museum acquired 67 of Penn's
portraits of artists, writers and musicians. (Thirty-five were donated
by Mr. Penn.) The entire group is temporarily on view in "Close
Encounters: Irving Penn Portraits of Artists and Writers," which
complements the library's collection of 20th-century drawings,
manuscripts, books and musical scores. Organized by a guest curator,
Peter Barberie, "Close Encounters" encompasses work from the 1940s, when
Mr. Penn first started to work for Vogue, through portraits published
in The New Yorker in 2006.
Many of the pictures at the Morgan were included in "Irving Penn:
Platinum Prints" at the National Gallery in 2005, which focused on his
darkroom artistry. The Morgan's exhibition has more to do with
relationships: between creative circles (Europeans and Americans);
individuals (H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan; Josef Albers and
Jasper Johns); and, most of all, between Mr. Penn and his exalted
The chronology skips around in places to emphasize artistic tribes.
Woody Allen is next to his idol Ingmar Bergman; Norman Mailer sits below
Philip Roth and cater-corner to John Updike. (The exhibition would have
benefited from more space; hanging some of the pictures in groups of
four creates peculiar hierarchies.)
Mr. Penn has been compared to Nadar, the 19th-century French
photographer who made studio portraits of the Impressionists, although
the comparison is superficial. He shares Nadar's scope but not his
sympathetic relationship to the sitter. Working primarily for Vogue,
where he collaborated with the art director Alexander Liberman and
competed with the photographer Richard Avedon, Mr. Penn developed a
signature, confrontational style.
During the late '40s Mr. Penn posed his subjects in austere, enclosed
spaces created by movable walls and undulating sections of carpet. These
backgrounds allowed him to create drama without resorting to easels,
books and other props of the sort he had relied on earlier in the decade
(Saul Steinberg with his sketchbook, John Cage leaning over a piano).
More important, the sense of physical confinement coaxed telling
reactions from his subjects. Mr. Penn recalled in his 1991 book
"Passage": "This confinement, surprisingly, seemed to comfort people,
soothing them. The walls were a surface to lean on or push against."
Truman Capote slouches solicitously in his corner; Duchamp strikes a
suave, Cary Grant-like pose. Georgia O'Keeffe turns her face directly at
the camera but leans ever so slightly to one side, a small gesture that
destabilizes the whole picture.
In the '50s Mr. Penn adopted a new close-up style that remains his
preferred way of working. The earliest example, a portrait of Carson
McCullers (taken in 1950, but printed, like many of Mr. Penn's works,
decades later), has a haunted, confessional quality. Among the other
standouts of this period is a 1957 portrait of Picasso in which his
wide-open left eye appears to float between his upturned collar and the
brim of his hat.
The windows to the soul are firmly shut in some of the later portraits.
Sometimes, as in a picture of Ingmar Bergman, this reads as evidence of
inner life; other times, as with the notoriously difficult Louise
Bourgeois, it comes across as a sign of frustration. A photograph of
Arthur Miller splits the difference; he holds one eyelid closed with the
tip of his index finger, while the other eye peers out from behind
The intensity dissipates a bit when Mr. Penn photographs more than one
person. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II sat for him, as did the
husband-wife pair Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning and the
father-daughter team Joan and Dolores Miró. The exhibition is replete
with real and imagined duos.
Two pillars of the French avant-garde, Jean Cocteau and the Rev.
Marie-Alain Couturier, who sponsored Le Corbusier for the Ronchamp
chapel commission, were photographed separately on the same day in 1948
but in a kind of counterpoint, with the dandyish Cocteau offsetting the
black-robed Dominican priest.
One fascinating double portrait from 1960 shows Willem de Kooning and
the architect and designer Frederick Kiesler. The photogenic de Kooning
dominates the picture, while the sleepy-eyed Kiesler is nearly cropped
The same dynamic applies to Mr. Penn's photographs of larger groups. One
individual stands out, be it Tanaquil LeClerc among members of the
Ballet Society or Orson Welles in a group of Italian writers. "Rock
Groups," taken in San Francisco during the 1967 Summer of Love, is an
exception. On the left side of this group portrait is Big Brother and
the Holding Company; on the right is the Grateful Dead. Everyone, even
Janis Joplin, looks strangely neutral.
In "Passage" Mr. Penn wrote: "The hippies and the rock groups surprised
me with their concentration. Their eyes remained riveted on the camera
lens; I found them patient and gentle." Where he expected confrontation,
he found none.
The productive tension between Mr. Penn and his subjects is most evident
in a photograph of Jasper Johns, from 2006, which has been given pride
of place across from the gallery entrance. Mr. Johns, who is 78, is as
dominant in his medium as the 90-year-old Mr. Penn. Mr. Johns's jowly,
tight-lipped face squares off with the camera, hanging masklike above
the black folds of his robe. His eyes are wide open. The portrait
session becomes a staring contest, and no one wins.
"Close Encounters: Irving Penn Portraits of Artists and Writers" is at
the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street,
through April 13; (212) 685-0008.
By Karen Rosenberg
For The New York Times