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For Penn, Platinum Was Most Precious

It may be true that the camera never lies, but it certainly isn’t above the occasional obfuscation.

And American photographer Irving Penn, it seems, wanted details.

He also wanted control.

He found both in his platinum prints, a stunning collection of which the octogenarian photographer, who still lives and works in New York, recently gifted to the National Gallery of Art. These will be on display beginning Sunday in the West Building.

First and foremost, Penn was a fashion and portrait photographer. When it came to making his initial platinum prints in the 1960s, he mined his cache of negatives amassed over his previous two decades of snapping haute couture and artistic and literary luminaries for Vogue, and other magazines, to create new works from old.

Penn wanted to take his pictures “beyond fact into poetry.”

And platinum prints, which had fallen out of favor during World War I due to their expense and the scarcity of the necessary materials, certainly allowed him to do this — the resulting images are about as lyrical and sensuous in their chiaroscuro and tonal range as anything the photographic medium allows. But in many ways, they are also more real — in them, the slick, glossed-over patinas of much Madison Avenue shutterbuggery gives way to nuance and even, at times, the distorting factuality of a magnifying class.

The results of the platinum printing process, which involves mixing iron and platinum salts to create a light-sensitive solution that is coated on paper, are illuminative, to say the least. Detail that a standard gelatin silver print might jettison — the pleats of a skirt, the texture of a scarf — in favor of a sharper image are brought to almost tactile liveness in Penn’s platinum versions. There is the embroidered pattern on the neck of Pablo Picasso’s black cape; the loose threads on the fabric upon which Marc Chagall lounges; the flecks of paint on sculptor Jacob Epstein’s pants.

In part, Penn has his own artistic and professional dissatisfaction to thank for his forays into platinum prints.

At the start of the 1960s, Penn was at the top of his game in the world of high-fashion photography. But he was also increasingly unhappy with the collaborative encumbrances of commercial work, as well as the control that magazines, such as Vogue, exerted over his finished product. Then there was the 1965 hiring of Richard Avedon, the late fashion and portrait photographer, by Condé Nast Art Director Alexander Liberman (with whom Penn worked closely), a move that shook Penn’s confidence, says exhibit curator Sarah Greenough.

As a photographer, Penn, at his core, is cool and cerebral. A bow-tie-wearing Tennessee Williams rests a cigarette holder in the crook of his finger. A jaunty Jean Cocteau, posed like a modern-day explorer, appears on the verge of embarking on a new artistic adventure. Marcel Duchamp, as spare and counterintuitively elegant as his ready-mades, stares out from the corner of two confining walls.

These pictures are staged, but they don’t pretend to be otherwise. Even when Penn is photographing natives in New Guinea, it’s always against a backdrop. He didn’t believe in trying to capture indigenous peoples in their natural surroundings, but rather brought them into what he considered a neutral space — the studio.

A similar approach is applied with equally felicitous results to his images of Hell’s Angels members, 1960s rock groups, Haight-Ashbury hippie families and even ordinary English, French and Americans representing various métiers, including the quirky job of Parisian cucumber seller — in this instance, a tattooed, gaunt, bare-shirted man with a crate of the large, phallic vegetables in hand. Printed in platinum, the starkness of these lives nearly leaps from the frame — the scuffed shoes, the bulging veins, the hairy leg, all utterly exposed.

But the most memorable shots from his magazine work are of his wife, model and sculptor Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, a frequent subject of Penn’s. She is, simply put, stunning — whether decked in a Rochas mermaid gown or a feathery Balenciaga dress. You can’t pull your eyes away from her statuesque frame. And when reluctantly you proceed onward, her sculpted features, sleek form and pretty, pert nose remain seared on the brain.

Penn, who was attracted to the total control over his work that platinum printing afforded, approached his work with scientific precision (he would even work with DuPont scientists to perfect his processes), conducting endless experiments in his darkroom with paper types, exposure times and chemical combinations — coating, exposing and developing the prints multiple times. He kept worksheets meticulously recording the results of his various trials (one of which is included in the show). As a result, he discovered that mixing platinum and palladium created warmer tones, instead of the stark blacks produced by mere platinum — and the pictures in the show are a result of this combination.

Despite the scientific underpinnings of the platinum printing process, the artist in him (Penn first set out to be a painter) is never sublimated. Indeed, platinum prints allowed Penn to combine science and art in new ways.

A photograph of willowy ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, surrounded by men in suits, including her husband, legendary choreographer George Balanchine, starts out faint and then increases in definition. Penn took the developing solution and brushed it thickly on the bottom two-thirds of the print, creating a painterly effect, Greenough says.

But if the platinum printing technique brings to life details that traditional gelatin silver prints obscured, it also has the added effect of perhaps being, at times, too honest — almost bordering on the garish. “I am not at all tender,” Penn once said of his photographs. Instead, he sought “to make an incision in the presented facade.”

The husband of the famed French author Colette said her Penn portrait left her “exposed before posterity,” and the platinum version certainly didn’t do her any additional favors. There is nothing flattering about Colette slouched backward with all the appeal of an aging, wasted madam. Ditto for American artist David Smith, whose every facial wrinkle and blemish, not to mention his mangled thumb, reach new heights of vividness.

Penn was a scavenger, of sorts. In the 1970s, he pounced on discarded paper cups, a mutilated Camel cigarette box and other detritus “reformed by rain and traffic.” These pictures would be Penn’s first photographs conceived specifically as platinum prints. The transformative possibilities were enormous.

Case in point: A simple close-up shot of a cigarette butt is almost unrecognizable. Penn’s camera homes in on every grainy textural nuance until each takes on enormous proportions. An uninitiated viewer would be forgiven for mistaking the photograph for the trunk of a birch tree rather than the mere commingling of used tobacco and paper.

In the 1980s, his platinum work would offer Penn, who frugally experimented on strips of paper before developing the full print, yet additional inspiration. One day, he pulled his test strips from a box to show a colleague and was struck by the possibilities they presented. Reconfigured on the page, these “Platinum Test Materials,” too, became high art — or at least freshly revelatory. And despite the disparate images these collages combine — one features humorist S.J. Perelman’s bespectacled eyes, Balanchine peering out from beneath LeClercq, a sewer cleaner, a Peruvian mother with child, and a still life with a human skull, among other subjects — in each work, Penn homes in on a unifying leitmotif to draw connections between seemingly unrelated images across the decades.

Ultimately, these photographic fragments, as Greenough posits, serve as “meditations” on the arc of his career. But they are also artistic amuse-bouches, of sorts, offering the viewer tantalizing shards of Penn’s clean, spare, seductive vision.

“Irving Penn: Platinum Prints” will be on display June 19 through Oct. 2 in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building. For more information, go to https://www.nga.gov.

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