Art World

Major Irving Penn retrospective features Summer of Love photographs

Left: Irving Penn. Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986. The Irving Penn Foundation. © The Irving Penn Foundation. Right: Irving Penn. Still Life with Watermelon, New York, 1947. The Irving Penn Foundation. © Condé Nast. PHOTOS COURTESY OF FAMSF

Irving Penn’s direct, expressive portraits are celebrated among the most recognizable photographs of the 20th century. In a career that spanned 70 years, Penn was a regular contributor to Vogue magazine for more than six decades and revolutionized fashion photography in the postwar period. Exclusive to the de Young museum, this major survey of Penn brings together 198 works including portraits of celebrities, cultural luminaries, laborers with the tools of their trades, abstract nudes, street scenes, nature, and of course fashion. In his most comprehensive retrospective to date, a section of the exhibition will be solely dedicated to Penn’s photographs from his 1967 trip to San Francisco.


After working for a short time at Harper’s Bazaar and Saks Fifth Avenue, Penn traveled and took photographs before accepting a position in Vogue’s Art Department. As one of Vogue’s top photographers, he created a record of 20th-century cultural history in images. Woman in Chicken Hat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn) (1949) is a classic example of Penn’s fashion photography and its keen sense of balance in composition and light. 

The portrait Joe Louis, (1948) shows the famous boxer in his uniform as a triangulated figure propped up in a narrow corner-like sculpture. Similarly, Penn had photographed artist Marcel Duchamp and writer Truman Capote in 1948 and 1949 backed into that same corner, eyes confronting the viewer. In both his fashion photos and his representations of cultural figures, Penn presents form in a minimal style combined with the directness of the subject’s gaze. This style of photographic representation became commonplace in the 1950s and 1960s, but Irving Penn popularized the approach.

Irving Penn. Rock Groups (Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Grateful Dead), San Francisco, 1967. The Irving Penn Foundation. © The Irving Penn Foundation. PHOTO COURTESY OF FAMSF


In 1967, Look magazine commissioned Penn to travel to San Francisco to record the Summer of Love. While on assignment, he snapped images of Hells Angels, hippie communities, and local rock bands. An expanded selection of images from San Francisco in the late 1960s during its moment at the epicenter of the countercultural movement will be given a special emphasis in the exhibition. “Penn’s images of West Coast residents capture a moment of electrifying social change, which forever altered the cultural landscape of the Bay Area,” remarked Emma Acker, Curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and organizing curator of the exhibition.

In Rock Groups (Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Grateful Dead) (1967), Penn looks into the faces of the “new” San Francisco. Instead of the brightly colored, psychedelic scene one might expect, the photographer instead memorializes its subjects in black and white. The group, which includes Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia, gaze with intent into the camera with deliberate expressions lending the image a sincerity and sense of immediacy. Hells Angel (Doug) (1967) has the same strong sense of individuality and documentarian characteristics.


Though he was known for his black-and-white photos, Penn did experiment with color. In an homage to the style of Dutch still life painters, Still Life with Watermelon (1947) is a traditional color image of a still life from the bowl of fruit in the upper register to the folded napkin and crust of bread in the foreground. Fast forward to 1986, and Mouth (For L’Oréal) (1986), a cropped image of nose, and lips splashed with diagonal hues of lipstick in pinks, browns, and reds exist as a nod to the style of 1980s fashion and advertising. 

Also on view are Penn’s rarely seen experimental photographs of nude workshop dancers performing American choreographer Anna Halprin’s The Bath.


Penn approached photography as fine art long before the medium was recognized as such. The exhibition presents his photographs of such leading lights of the screen as Marlene Dietrich and Audrey Hepburn, renowned designers Gianni Versace and Yves Saint Laurent, architect Le Corbusier, writer Joan Didion, and others. Penn lent that nuanced sense of composition and human expression to his portraits of everyday people also — tradespeople, street vendors, and residents of Cuzco, Peru are seen through the egalitarian spirit of Penn’s lens so that familiar faces and strangers are equally powerful.

Irving Penn: Tue.–Sun., 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m., March 16–July 21, $32, de Young Museum, 50 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., 415-750-3600,

Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer from Southern California. She can be reached at

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