Friday, June 16, 2017

Met Museum: Irving Penn Centennial

The problem facing any gallery or museum that attempts to mount a retrospective of Irving Penn's photographs is the sheer volume of material available for presentation.  Penn's career spanned some six decades from the mid-1940's well into the first decade of the twenty-first century.  During this period he worked continuously and in every decade produced some of the most iconic photographs of the post war era.  Beyond that, he was a gifted darkroom technician who almost single handedly revived the platinum printing process that provided far greater depth and tonal range than the use of silver bromide paper allowed.  In one instance, four prints of the same image (Girl Drinking) have been placed side by side at this exhibit to demonstrate the different effects that could be achieved by alternating between hand-made platinum and commercially manufactured silver gelatin papers.

The Met Museum's current Centennial exhibit solves the problem of what photographs to show from such a large body of work by showcasing the "landmark promised gift from The Irving Penn Foundation to The Met of more than 150 photographs by Penn, representing every period of the artist's dynamic career with the camera."  Fortunately, this gift contains an excellent cross section of the artist's oeuvre and contains some of the best examples of his work available in each genre.  In addition, on display are photographs that entered the Met's collection prior to this acquisition.

The exhibit begins with several examples of Penn's early street photography shot in 1941 when the artist would have been approximately 24 years old.  To be honest, these early attempts, many of them nothing more than straightforward representations of store signs, are not particularly remarkable in themselves but are still worth seeing in order to obtain a better appreciation of what would follow.

The next steps Penn would take were a series of what the museum refers to as "existential portraits."  Most of these were completed in 1947-1948 and featured such subjects as Alfred Hitchcock, Spencer Tracy, Peter Ustinov, Salvador Dali, Truman Capote and Marcel Duchamp.  The best is a portrait of Mrs. Armory Carhart - displayed here in an uncropped print that shows the studio equipment surrounding the background curtain - that gives an early indication of Penn's talent as a fashion photographer.  The fashion photographs themselves depict with wit and style the world of haute couture as it existed in New York City in the late 1940's and early 1950's.  Included among them are many photos featuring Lisa Fonssagrives, the elegant Swedish model whom Penn would eventually marry.

It's important to note at this point that Penn had a great deal of expert help in developing his talent.  Before even taking up photography, he had already studied art in Philadelphia under Alexey Brodovich, art director of Harper's Bazaar.  In New York, Penn's earliest portrait and fashion assignments, mentioned above, were given him when he joined the staff of Vogue and came under the direction of Alexander Liberman.  Liberman proved the perfect mentor for Penn, and he was always wise enough to give full rein to his protege's creativity.  In many respects, Liberman was the type of art director most editorial photographers can only dream of working for.

One of Penn's most important long running projects was photographing tradespeople in the outfits in which they worked.  These individuals included everyone from a waiter to a balloon saleman to a "rag and bone" man.  Although the documentation accompanying the exhibit made no mention of this that I could see, these photographs clearly show the influence of the German photographer August Sander who completed a similar project, entitled People of the 20th Century, during the Weimar period.  Penn extended this concept when he traveled to such exotic locations as Peru, New Guinea and Dahomey.  When photographing alien cultures, Penn was always careful to show total respect both to his sitters and to the societies to which they belonged no matter how far different from his own.  In addition to their importance as photographs, these images also have a distinct anthropological value.

Other genres Penn pursued were still lifes, fine art nudes and close-up studies of cigarette butts, the last blown up so large that they are monumental in appearance.  Although these are all stunning technical achievements, none of them in my opinion rises to the level of greatness achieved in Penn's portrait and fashion photography.

A few of the tools used by Penn in his work are also on display.  These include a battered theater curtain that he invariably used as a backdrop for his portraits as well as a Rolleiflex 3.5 E3 twin lens reflex camera with 75 mm Carl Zeiss Planar lens.  The focal length of the lens is notable.  It is a "normal" lens rather than the short telephoto (approximately 150 mm) normally used for portrait work.

Irving Penn was born on June 16, 1917. Today would have been his 100th birthday.

The exhibit continues through July 30, 2017.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Summer Break

Now that the 2016-2017 season has concluded, it's time to remind my readers that this is a seasonal blog.  While I may be posting a handful of articles over the summer months - most of them to do with art exhibits I've seen - this blog will be largely inactive until late September.

I intend to devote the summer months to finishing my fourth novel, The Blue Hours, the first draft of which I completed last year.  Summer seems the best time, principally because there are so few distractions, to lose myself in a fictional world deeply enough to make the experience believable to both myself and those who read my work.  This particular book is a noir thriller, a tribute to Cornell Woolrich who invented the genre.

During the summer months, I also intend to post one street photograph each day on my other blog, City of Strangers.  While I'm not a musician and have at best a limited knowledge of the repertoire, I am - if I do say so myself - a highly competent photographer.  I hope some of you will take the time to check out my work.

Wishing everyone a great summer!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Mahler

On Wednesday evening, I walked down to Carnegie Hall to hear the last musical event on my calendar for the 2016-2017 season as the Met Orchestra gave the first of three scheduled concerts.  I subscribe to this series and had originally planned to all attend all three concerts but then changed my mind when James Levine dropped out as conductor.  I kept the ticket to first concert because it featured an all-Mahler program as well as mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and tenor Michael Polenzani as guest artists.  In place of Mr. Levine, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the orchestra.

The program opened with Mahler's 1905 cycle of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn - "Der Schildwache Nachtlied," "Verlor'ne Müh," "Trost im Unglück," "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht," "Das irdische Leben," "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt," "Rheinlegendchen," "Lied des Verfolgten im Turm," "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen," and "Lob des hohen Verstandes."  I've taken the time to list the titles of all ten songs simply because Mahler's adaptations from the early nineteenth century collection of folk poems extended over a number of years and included works for both voice and piano as well as voice and orchestra.  Even the 1905 edition of the latter, that performed here, differed from the 1899 edition that included two additional songs - "Urlicht" and "Es sungen drei Engel."  The reader is referred to the Wikipedia article for a fuller history.

If the history of Mahler's compositions based on Des Knaben Wunderhorn is convoluted, it's because the source material had such a huge impact upon him and ran like a thread through his music.  This was not simply a case of a composer happening upon a well known poem and setting it to music as Schubert and Brahms had done in their lieder.  The Wunderhorn anthology provided not only material for roughly half the songs Mahler composed during his career but also for his symphonies.  One has to wonder why this archaic collection of songs that hover uneasily between folk tradition and German Romanticism held such vital appeal for a composer who was himself by birth not German but Bohemian.  These strange songs must have held a personal significance for Mahler that perhaps he himself did not fully comprehend.  Some of his settings have a martial air while others are seemingly no more than idyllic love songs.  The most harrowing is Das irdische Leben ("The Earthly Life") told from the point of view of a starving child. The death of a child was one to which Mahler would return several years later in his 1904 Kindertotenlieder that presaged the death of his own daughter and was based on a series of poems by Friedrich Rückert who had also lost two of his own children to scarlet fever.  Eight of Mahler's siblings had died while still in childhood and he must necessarily have been deeply traumatized by this introduction at so young an age to the finality of death.  

Susan Graham and Michael Polenzani each took a place on one side of the conductor and alternated in their performances of the song.  (There was one humorous moment, though, where Ms. Graham waved Mr. Polenzani back to his seat and proceeded to sing two songs in a row.)  Both were in fine voice and helped the audience to experience the beauty of both the words and music.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of the Symphony No. 1 in D major (1884-1888), originally entitled "The Titan."  As is the case with any composer writing his first symphony, Mahler struggled mightily with the No. 1 in the fifteen year period between the first tentative sketches completed in 1884 and its publication in 1899.  He was constantly reworking it, creating and then deleting programmatic explanations, first giving it a title and then just as quickly removing it.  Listening to the music, it seems that Mahler was trying to put into it everything he had experienced in his life up to that point - snatches of Songs of a Wayfarer, a funeral march, bird songs, and even a children's nursery rhyme.  No wonder early listeners, including the composer's future wife Alma, were confused and even repelled by what they heard.  But underlying the ceaseless experimentation and accumulation of sources is the sense that this is a work of genius, difficult to comprehend perhaps, but undeniably a masterpiece.  There is a grandeur in this symphony that makes its original title highly appropriate.  It is indeed titanic and a turning point in the history of modern music.  In it lie the seeds of the great symphonies that were to come.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is a talented conductor, but the intricacies of Mahler's music, especially that of the Symphony No. 1, appeared beyond his grasp on Wednesday evening.  This was to me not an entirely satisfying performance (though the audience applauded quite enthusiastically at its conclusion), but I was still able to appreciate the magnificence of Mahler's achievement.