Irving Penn: Portraits in a Corner, 1948

Sometime in 1948, Penn began making portraits in a small corner space made of two studio flats pushed together, the floor covered with a piece of old carpeting. To quote the photographer, “a very rich series of pictures resulted. This confinement, surprisingly seemed to comfort people, soothing them. The walls were a surface to lean on or push against. For me the picture possibilities were interesting: limiting the subjects’ movement seemed to relieve me of part of the problem of holding on to them.”

Penn’s subjects constituted a wide spectrum of writers, dancers, artists, socialites, musicians, political figures and other celebrities of the era. Among those who found their way into Penn’s corner were Noel Coward, the Duchess of Windsor, Marcel Duchamp, Joe Louis, the Gish Sisters, Duke Ellington, and Truman Capote.

Penn had already begun to use the studio as an insistent environment in which the viewer is allowed to see the electrical cables, edges of backdrops, and the photographic detritus randomly scattered along the floor. This particular series, however, utilized the ruse of a sharper-than-90º corner in which the subjects position themselves. Some are wedged in as if suspended by their shoulders, others lean against it for compatible support, compressed and altered by the claustrophobic space. These are existential pictures; pictures in which “personalities” are isolated, posed in an abstract and artificial corner of the world. The pictures limn the unique and historic time in which they were made; the 1940s was a time of violent change and new beginnings, in which these daring intellects and talents thrived.

Irving Penn began his career in New York as a graphic artist in 1938, at age 17. After a year spent painting in Mexico he returned to New York City and began work at Vogue magazine where Alexander Liberman was art director. Penn’s photographs are included in major collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington. The publication of his most recent monograph, Passage (1991, Callaway), coincides with the current exhibition.