By Ken Tanaka
One of the unfortunate consequences of today's noisy age of communication is the deflation of "great." It seems that to grab any attention in the daily cacophony anything passable, or even momentarily competent, must now be called not "fair" or "good" but immediately declaimed as "great."
But genuine greatness can neither be achieved nor assessed so casually. Within the worlds of art and photography, greatness lands slowly and is gradually acknowledged through the lens of time. Irving Penn was indisputably one of the greatest photographers and artists of the 20th century, with a career that spanned nearly seventy percent of that century and a body of work that's astonishing for its variety and quality. Although best known for his fashion and portrait photography, Penn's artistic interests and accomplishments meandered to other genres of photography and even occasionally into non-photographic art forms.
In 1995 Irving Penn donated his archives to the Art Institute of Chicago. His transparencies, contact sheets, prints, drawings, notes, correspondence, even some of his cameras are all housed at the Museum. It's an enormous body of material which, although well-organized upon intake, has occupied man-years of work by a devoted research team, with the support of the Irving Penn Foundation, to sculpt into the recently-opened Irving Penn Archives site.
I really think that most TOP readers will love this. A warning, though: don't expect to casually jump in if you only have a few minutes to spare. Grab a beverage, sit down at a cozy spot and just enjoy immersing yourself in all things Penn.
If you’re not very familiar with Irving Penn, I envy you: you’re in for quite a new treat. I also envy you if you are familiar with Penn: I can virtually guarantee that you'll delight in learning something new about him or his work.
Regardless of your Penn-savviness, spending study time in the Penn Archives may, at the very least, recalibrate your working concept of what qualifies as a "great photographer."
(Illustration: Irving Penn, Large Sleeve, 1951)
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.