Exhibition: ‘Irving Penn, Resonance’ at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice

Exhibition dates: 13th April – 31st December 2014

Curators: Pierre Apraxine and Matthieu Humery



Irving Penn. 'Lion (Front View)' Prague 1986


Irving Penn (American, 1917-2009)
Lion (Front View)
Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation



Irving Penn’s platinum photographs fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction. I could think of better things to spend my money on…

I have never been a fan – of his cigarette butts, fruit dishes, vanitas as well as animal skulls and ethnographic photos. There are just too clinically cold and dead for me. Other people may love them, but for work that supposedly investigates the ephemerality and brevity of human existence Penn tightens his essentially reductive approach until the conceptual (and formal) noose strangles the subject.

Irving Penn’s Worlds in a Small Room (where he set up baffles and stood “mudpeople” and other tribespeople), his masks, and his platinum prints of cigarette butts are his claim to fame. They were championed by the US East Coast and commercial interests. They are not terrible, but I don’t believe they are deserving of their fame – well, they are terrible in a way because they are just sort of mildly pathetic really. The work was deliberately made to attract the limelight too, at least in the vibe I get from them.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to the Palazzo Grassi for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Irving Penn: The Enduring Power of Formal Simplicity

“Irving Penn was one of the most significant and prolific photographers of the 20th century whose signature blend of classical elegance, cool minimalism and monumentality still command our attention… Penn’s visual innovations, compositional originality and intensity, his diversity and range, his meticulous perfectionism and his technical precision and insistence on clean spare elegant compositions are his trademarks… A remarkable sixty-year career was filled with amazing commissioned images which could not have been sustained without a relentless sense of precision and unyielding attention to details as well as a restless sense of curiosity… Penn’s approach from the beginning was essentially reductive – he described it as a ‘tightening process – the plastic search.’ He preferred the simple studio backdrop in order to concentrate on preserving the ‘sanctity of the document’… Penn’s legacy is his prodigious insatiable breadth of work blurring the worlds of commerce and fine art. He was constantly questioning the meaning of time, of life and its fragility.

Diana Edkins. “Irving Penn: The Enduring Power of Formal Simplicity,” on The Eye of Photography website April 2014 [Online] Cited 21/11/2022



Irving Penn. 'Poppy: Showgirl' London, 1968


Irving Penn (American, 1917-2009)
Poppy: Showgirl
London, 1968
Copyright © by Condé Nast Publications, Inc.


Irving Penn. 'Cuzco Children' 1948


Irving Penn (American, 1917-2009)
Cuzco Children
Copyright © by Condé Nast Publications, Inc.



The exhibition Irving Penn, Resonance, curated by Pierre Apraxine and Matthieu Humery, brings together on the second floor of Palazzo Grassi 130 photographs, taken between the end of the 1940s and the mid-1980s. The exhibition is a collection of 90 platinum prints, 30 gelatin silver prints, 4 colourful dye transfer prints and 17 internegatives, which will be shown to the public for the first time.

It tackles the themes dear to Irving Penn and which, beyond their apparent diversity, all capture every facet of ephemerality. This is true of the selection of photographs from the series small trades, taken in France, England and the United States in the 1950s. It is also the case for the portraits taken between the 1950s and the 1970s of celebrities from the world of art, cinema, and literature. Exhibited alongside ethnographic photographs of the people of Dahomey and of tribesmen from New Guinea and Morocco, they strongly underline the brevity of human existence, whether affluent or resourceless, famous or unknown.

The exhibition path, which encourages dialogue and connections between works that differ in subject matter and period of time, gives prominence to still life photography from the late 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s: they are composed of cigarette ends, fruit dishes, vanitas as well as animal skulls photographed at the Narodni National Museum in Prague in 1986 for the series Cranium Architecture.

This broad overview of Irving Penn’s work puts relatively unknown images side-by-side with the most iconic ones, thereby revealing the particular ability to synthesise that characterises this photographer: in his work, modernity is not necessarily in opposition with the past and the way he exerts control over every step of the process, from the studio to the printing (to which he dedicates a lot of attention and unprecedented care), enables one to come nearer to the truth of things and people, through a constant questioning of the meaning of time, of life and of its fragility.


Irving Penn

Irving Penn was born in 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey. In 1934 he enrolled at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art where he studied design with Alexey Brodovitch. In 1938 he began a career in New York as a graphic artist – then, after a year painting in Mexico, he returned to New York City and began work at Vogue magazine where Alexander Liberman was art director.

Liberman encouraged Penn to take his first colour photograph, a still life which became the October 1, 1943 cover of Vogue, beginning a fruitful collaboration with the magazine that lasted until his death in 2009. In addition to his editorial and fashion work for Vogue, Penn also worked for other magazines and for numerous commercial clients in America and abroad.

He published many books of his photographs including: Moments Preserved (1960); Worlds in a Small Room (1974); Inventive Paris Clothes (1977); Flowers (1980); Passage (1991); Irving Penn Regards The Work of Issey Miyake (1999); Still Life (2001); Dancer (2001); Earthly Bodies (2002); A Notebook At Random (2004); Dahomey (2004); Irving Penn: Platinum Prints (2005); Small Trades (2009); and two books of drawings and paintings.

Penn’s photographs are in the collections of major museums in America and abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which honoured him with a retrospective exhibition in 1984. This exhibition was circulated to museums in twelve countries. Irving Penn made a donation, in 1997, to the Art Institute of Chicago of prints and archival material. In November of that year, the Art Institute mounted a retrospective that also toured to 5 museums around the world beginning at The State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Press release from the Palazzo Grassi website


Irving Penn. 'Black and White Vogue Cover (Jean Patchett)' New York, 1950


Irving Penn (American, 1917-2009)
Black and White Vogue Cover (Jean Patchett)
New York, 1950
Copyright © by Condé Nast Publications, Inc.


Irving Penn. 'Truman Capote (1 of 2)' New York, 1965


Irving Penn (American, 1917-2009)
Truman Capote (1 of 2)
New York, 1965
Copyright © by Condé Nast Publications, Inc.


Irving Penn. 'Deep-Sea Diver (C)' New York, 1951


Irving Penn (American, 1917-2009)
Deep-Sea Diver (C)
New York, 1951
Copyright © by Condé Nast Publications, Inc.



Palazzo Grassi
Dorsoduro, 2 
, Italy

Opening hours:

Wednesday – Monday 10am – 7pm
Closed Tuesdays

Palazzo Grassi website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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