Irving Penn (1917 - 2009), one of the giants of contemporary photography, became world famous for his portraits of great models and celebrities which would grace the pages - and the covers - of Vogue for 60 years. One can immediately recognize an Irving Penn photograph, the beautiful black and white tones of the subject against a neutral background to better capture the essence of the person in front of his lens and emphasize gesture and expression. He was a supreme observer of human expressions.
Woman in Chicken Hat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), New York, 12/1/1949
Gelatin silver print
The exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young museum spans 70 years of Penn’s career, starting in the 1930’s. A total of 175 prints covering the full range of his work, from still life to celebrities, abstract nudes, debris, street scenes, flowers, etc.
Still Life with Watermelon, New York, 1947, printed 1959–60
Dye transfer print

But Penn was much more than a fashion photographer, even if he did contribute to transforming this art form. He was curious about humans outside of his studio, interested in “everyday people '' - street vendors, laborers, simple folks from Cuzco, in Peru, as well as a Tambul warrior from New Guinea. From 1967 to 1971, Penn traveled across the world - to Morocco Crete, Nepal, Melanesia, Dahomey, Cameroon, Japan, Spain - with a bespoke tent studio to capture a completely different side of the human species. 

“The studio became, for each of us, a sort of neutral area,” explained Penn. “It was not their home, as I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives; it was not my home, as I had obviously come from elsewhere, from far away. But in this limbo there was for us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often, I could tell, a moving experience for the subjects themselves, who without words—by only their stance and their concentration—were able to say much that spanned the gulf between our different worlds.” 


Hell's Angel (Doug), San Francisco, September 1967, printed before 1975
Gelatin silver print


In that spirit, in 1967, Look magazine, which at the time was selling 7.5 million copies per issue, sent Irving Penn to San Francisco to document the Summer of Love, the huge social phenomenon when over 100,000 young people - hippies - converged to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Penn photographed Hell’s Angels, hippies, famous rock bands like The Grateful Dead, and the avant-garde San Francisco’s Dancers’ Workshop. His impetus was “to look into the faces of these new San Francisco people through a camera in a daylight studio.” These images memorialized the defining countercultural movement of the 1960’s.


Rock Groups, San Francisco (Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Grateful Dead), 1967, printed December 1979 Platinum-palladium print


“Penn’s images of West Coast residents capture a moment of electrifying social change, which forever altered the cultural landscape of the Bay Area,” analyzes Emma Acker, the organizing curator of the exhibition. De Young’s exhibition includes an expanded selection of these portraits, “emphasizing our museum’s location at the epicenter of the countercultural movement of the 1960’s, particularly the Summer of Love,” underlines Emma Acker. The show also reinforces the genius of Irving Penn and his profoundly human approach to photography. 

Jean-Sébastien Stehli


Mouth (for L'Oréal), New York, 1986, printed 1992
Dye transfer print


Irving Penn. De Young Museum, San Francisco. Until 07.21.24.

April 03, 2024 — Sonam Khetan