Exhibit | Irving Penn: Women, Warriors

Photo: Irving Penn. Three New Guinea Men Painted White, 1970. Platinum-palladium print. 20 x 19 3/4 in.

“What I really try to do is photograph people at rest, in a state of serenity,” Irving Penn revealed. The artist’s intuitive ability to discern the moment of effortless repose appears time and again in his work, whether taking portraits of famous figures or when creating images of anonymous archetypes. Penn’s ability to bridge the distance between commercial and personal work enabled him to experiment in both arenas as a means to inform each other, producing a series of works that have their own private dialogue with one another.

Also: Exhibit | Photographs Picturing the American Southwest

On view now through April 16, 2016, Masters Projects, Brooklyn, presents Irving Penn: Women, Warriors, which brings together posed nudes from 1949-50 with ethnographic portraits in Africa and the South Pacific made through the 1970s. It is in these two series that we can see Penn using his talents and techniques to push the boundaries of classical photography.

Irving Penn. Girl Sitting (Cameroon), 1974. Platinum Palladium Print. 20 x 20 in.

Irving Penn. Girl Sitting (Cameroon), 1974. Platinum Palladium Print. 20 x 20 in.

Penn began photographing the female nude in 1949 in between assignments from Vogue. At first he photographed thin models, but his preference soon shifted to heavier models whose bodies become more plasticine in his photographs. While working on these pictures, Penn developed techniques that he later used in still life and commercial works, much in the same way he reversed this in the 1970s, applying the aesthetic influence of fashion photography on his enthnographic portraits of the people of New Guinea, Morocco, and Cameroon.

In fact, it was Penn’s assignments for Vogue that brought him to remote locations for weeks at a time. For most projects, he constructed backdrops that evoked the austere studio surroundings he used for the nude studies decades earlier. Ever the Modernist, Penn keep to what he does best, posing the subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop and leaving the rest to what comes next.

Irving Penn. Nude No 56 (Variant), 1949-1950. Vintage gelatin silver print. 19 7/8 in.

Irving Penn. Nude No 56 (Variant), 1949-1950. Vintage gelatin silver print. 19 7/8 in.

“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective,” Penn observed. “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world… very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe.”

For Women, Warriors, we are given Penn’s subjects as archetypes rather than individuals. No names are available. Without those details, we may consider these images as something more than a portrait of a singular figure of whom something more can be known; rather, here we are given only the figure to study and behold. By removing their identity, Penn relieves himself of what he observes: “This is of course a problem in portrait photography—to get past the facade that people would like to present.”

Irving Penn. Five Moroccan Women, 1971. Platinum palladium print. 20 1/8 x 19 3/4 in.

Irving Penn. Five Moroccan Women, 1971. Platinum palladium print. 20 1/8 x 19 3/4 in.

As a true Modernist, Penn works to distill the essence of the soul, using the photograph as a means to capture and transport these energies, in order to share them with the world. Women, Warriors gives us insight into Penn’s brilliant ability to push creative boundaries through the photograph while retaining its classical use as a document to record the world in which we live.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.