Irving Penn is about to be hailed, again, as perhaps the greatest photographer, ever, when his retrospective of portraits opens at the Morgan Library on Jan. 18, 2007. The steeliness of his eye, the longevity of his career and his presumed asceticism score high on the list of requirements of camera greatness.
What we notice with Penn is dictatorial control of his subjects leavened by melancholy. Take Penn’s image of Truman Capote, shut-eyed and curled up like a snail. This seems to imply the inner anguish of the writer, but in actuality is one more simple flirtation with the photographer. Harlem Renaissance man James Van Der Zee, shown blowing smoke, and a royally perspicacious Barnett Newman are tribunes of the ultracool, beckoning to future generations. Giacometti is liberated from his neuroses into an urbanity worthy of Marcello Mastroianni. Jean Cocteau, pursuer of tattooed young boys, is transformed by a cloak into Napoleon.
There is rarely a carefree moment, or a spontaneous one, in Penn’s work. Nadar, with his long exposures, has far more animated subjects. Like his imitators, Avedon and Mapplethorpe, Penn loves to equate Rousseau’s primitives with his more sophisticated subjects (and, like Mapplethorpe, he also does flowers!). Nothing startles as much as Irving’s Moroccan couples, a not-so-noble savage with a full burkaed wife or a trio of headhunters from New Guinea.
But these images are far from authentic: they are the subset of a tyrant with the eye of a tunnel, and thus far from esthetically nourishing. The trickster lies not in front of the camera, but behind it. My favorite Penn snap is his portrait of Colette, wearily pulled from her bed, where she wrote all day, and gussied up in draggy reference to Talleyrand or Voltaire, her thin smile defying the man with the camera, who perhaps creates magic, but not art.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).