- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

On leave from his life in Manhattan as a fashion photographer, the tall, elegant man named Irving Penn spent an extra week in the mountains of Peru. Within a few days, Mr. Penn found himself beckoning two little peasants into his borrowed studio, stepping with them through the northern light pouring onto the stone floor.

Other folks in Cuzco had been there the week before, willing to pay for their family portraits. Now, though, during the Christmas holidays of 1948, this odd American had sublet the place and actually would pay them to stand in front of his camera.

Mr. Penn spent extra time on two particularly serious children. They had both arrived barefoot; the little sister wore a burlap bag for her skirt. Mr. Penn cared very much that she should be seen from head to toe and that the quality of his photograph should preserve the tiniest details of her forlorn, doll-like appearance.

The boy and girl displayed the grace of two old souls, leaning in from each side of a dusty, padded stool to hold each other’s hand.

“They were hypnotized by the camera,” Mr. Penn recalled. “I adored them, and they knew it. They presented themselves to me and to each exposure of the film in the fullest confidence.”

What they gave to the photographer was perfect, and he owed nothing less in return. Some 57 years later, Mr. Penn’s perfectionism has been fulfilled in the National Gallery of Art’s “Irving Penn: Platinum Prints” (June 19 through Oct. 2), an exhibition of 70 prints and 12 collages from among the more than 100 works the photographer gave to the gallery in 2002.

In the first two decades of his career, Mr. Penn’s heart was broken repeatedly by the way printing presses dirtied his intentions. He couldn’t even bear to glimpse the finished magazine pages in Vogue because it always “hurt too much.”

He felt all the more betrayed by his mentor and editor, Alex Liberman. It seems that Mr. Liberman, the art director at Vogue, gave Mr. Penn’s one true rival, Richard Avedon, the cover assignments and the biggest picture spreads inside.

Mr. Penn withdrew from the world, retreating to forgotten corners of the New York Public Library, where he looked up the methods and recipes dating back to the very invention of photography.

From the 19th century, Mr. Penn reclaimed and combined the lost arts of making palladium and platinum prints, the former loved for their breathy greys and the latter promising the richest blacks. The last known practitioners of these methods had been those photographic lions of the early 20th century, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Following the commercialization of silver printing paper by Kodak and Agfa, those earlier efforts had come to seem merely quaint.

Mr. Penn took ingredients such as arrowroot from the medieval alchemist, along with mixtures such as a ferric oxalate-potassium chlorate solution and unheard of glues from collaborations with the best minds at Dow Chemical.

By his own count, Mr. Penn spent thousands of silent hours in the dark brushing the light-sensitive chemicals onto the best plain paper he could find, experimenting with samples from all over the world.

He would not allow anyone even to assist him in this, claiming that he would be “jealous” of sharing the pleasure. Much as he had as a young painter, he again used his brush to suppress some areas or highlight others.

Mr. Penn exposed his black-and-white prints to light in several stages, for intervals ranging from two minutes to eight hours. He used as many as three different internegatives in a manner similar to the way printers overlay cyan, magenta and yellow ink to make the rainbow.

The photographer’s compulsive note-taking allows us to follow each hour of progress. For the careful observer, he left clues to all of his methods in plain sight, such as, for example, the tiny registration pinholes just beyond the border of each print.

To stretch his investments of time, materials and money, Mr. Penn trimmed test strips out of his precious platinum-encrusted paper. With these he could try out printing a face or a hand, adjusting the time and strength of his magic. These strips prove out his hard-won intentions, his meditations, his works in progress. Each scrap was stored away, and all combined as an encyclopedia of the photographer’s creative mind.

Long ago, he stuck these bits and pieces to large, vertical sheets of paper, and these are the most fascinating artifacts at the NGA exhibit. Even today, they show the brown, acidified scabs of masking tape, each image with its own protective little copyright shield.

Now painstakingly boxed and hung at the National Gallery, they seem to lack only a breeze, resembling for all the world a half-century of pressed flowers and autumn leaves.

Mr. Penn did not obey the Zone System laws of Ansel Adams, wherein the photographer makes sure that spectral highlights still twinkle and that the darkest shadows remain distinct across every single image. In fact, total blackness swallows large portions of Mr. Penn’s topography, and so too, pale skin is overwhelmed by the light. What he always hoped to achieve, however, was the best possible interpretation of what his inner eye had first seen.

All of this saved for us the downy white hairs on a young woman’s legs, the pancake dust on a dowager’s cheek, the gloppy charcoal around an actor’s eyes. He thought we should take another long look at things retrieved from the gutter, to study, for example, the filthy paper cup now with two mouths, one like the lips of a carp. Don’t overlook, he urges, the fibers that made up the paper or the delicate, stubborn ash that won’t let go.

A colleague of Mr. Penn’s described buying “five hundred lemons for him to pick the perfect one, [and then] he had to take five hundred shots of that lemon.”

Throughout his creative life, Mr. Penn kept a remarkably steady aesthetic, a visual style that treated a bouquet of people from a ballet company not much differently from a bouquet of cigarette butts.

Although he was working in a distinctly modern medium, his underlying intention was to make enduring art. He managed to find unknown faces that closely resembled the archetypes most interesting to the Grimm brothers and the classic Greek playwrights. Here come the goblin, the knight on his shining steed, the mysterious wise man, the princess-ballerina, the dreamer — all converted into nearly cartoonish paper dolls.

Mr. Penn did not need gimmicks. He wouldn’t force his subjects into a silly jump the way Philippe Halsman did or take away a cigar to prompt a pout the way Yosuf Karsh did or make them dance and sing the way Mr. Avedon did. All of Mr. Penn’s progress was achieved by tiny, persistent degrees.

WHAT: “Irving Penn: Platinum Prints”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art West Building, ground floor, inner tier. On the Mall between Third and Seventh streets at Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: Tomorrow through Oct. 2. Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

TICKETS: Admission is free. Passes are not required for this exhibition.

INFORMATION: Call 202/737-4215 or the Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD) at 202/842-6176.

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov/exhibitions/upcoming.shtm#penn

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