09) Irving Penn. Joe Louis, February 15, 1948. Gelatin silver print. 9 15/16 x 8 1/16 in. (25.3 x 20.5 cm.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation, 2021. © Condé Nast.

Irving Penn Retrospective Comes to The DeYoung

Irving Penn is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers, renowned for his pared-down aesthetic, exemplary printmaking, and artistic experimentation.

A regular contributor to Vogue magazine for more than six decades, he revolutionized fashion photography in the post-war period, positioning models against neutral backdrops to emphasize gesture and expression. Although best known for his psychologically penetrating portraits, Penn was a prolific artist whose career spanned 70 years and a wide array of interests.

Our favorite image is of Joe Louis. This could be “The Brown Bomber” as “A Boxer at Rest.”

The major retrospective Irving Penn captures every period of that dynamic career behind the camera, beginning in the late 1930s and continuing into the first decade of the 21st century. Organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and presented exclusively on the West Coast at the de Young museum, the exhibition brings together approximately 175 works—including Penn’s portraits of celebrities, cultural luminaries, and laborers with the tools of their trades; abstract nudes and early documentary street scenes; compositions of wilting flowers, signage, and street debris; fashion studies and meticulous still lifes—along with a newly enhanced section dedicated solely to Penn’s photographs from the 1967 San Francisco Summer of Love.

“Irving Penn is a giant of 20th-century photography whose portraits and still lifes were transformative for the medium,” remarked Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “We are delighted to present the most extensive retrospective of his work to date here in San Francisco, epicenter of the countercultural movements Penn so masterfully captured in his vibrant photographs from the 1967 Summer of Love. The energy of those images underscores the longstanding impact of Bay Area culture within the United States and, indeed, around the world.”

The exhibition Irving Penn explores the photographer’s profound interest in the ephemerality and complexity of the human condition, evidenced not only in his portraits, but also in the masterful still lifes that bookend his career. Approaching photography as a fine art long before it was widely recognized as such, Penn paired nuanced composition with an uncanny talent for observing human expression, attitude, and demeanor. He was celebrated as one of Vogue’s top photographers, creating a record of 20th-century cultural history in his images. The exhibition presents Penn’s photographs of such leading lights of the screen as Marlene Dietrich and Audrey Hepburn, renowned designers Gianni Versace and Yves Saint Laurent, and foremost writers Truman Capote and Joan Didion. But Penn’s egalitarian spirit and heightened photographic sensitivity made his portraits of everyday people—tradespeople, street vendors, and residents of Cuzco, Peru—equally moving and powerful.

Opening at the de Young museum on March 16 and running through July 21, Irving Penn is the most comprehensive retrospective of the renowned photographer to date, revealing his extraordinary artistic versatility and range.