In 1991, more than forty years after he had completed his first nudes, Irving Penn declared: "The relationship between us was professional, without a hint of sexual response. Anything else would have made pictures like these impossible."
In 2001 Penn said of the same sessions, "It was a kind of love affair. I was a bachelor at the time." He recalled staying connected to the models "with coos, murmurs, and supportive breathing to convey that everything was wonderful, just right in this perfect situation." He would get down on the floor with his camera right next to the model. The camera allowed "our discovery, together, of each other."
Will the real Irving Penn please stand up?
Maybe the real Penn is to be found not by sorting out his feelings, or for that matter his taste in body types-fleshy (like his nude models) or svelte (like his Vogue models, including the one he married, Lisa Fonssagrives). Maybe the real Penn, if such a being exists, is to be found by looking at what he actually does with these bodies.
Two exhibitions of Penn's nudes, organized separately, are now on view in New York. The large prints in "Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949-50," curated by Maria Morris Hambourg at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were made a half century ago, when the photographer, a former student of Alexey Brodovitch, was working at Vogue under Alexander Liberman. The small-format images for "Dancer," organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (where a second set of these prints is simultaneously on view), were made only a few years ago.
Save for the fact that both shows feature shockingly fleshy flesh, the two are little alike. One is structured like a deliberate and intimate performance, while the other mimics the disorienting deformations of dreams.
The twenty-seven photographs in "Dancer" all feature Alexandra Beller, a member of the Bill T. Jones Dance Company. Hung in a single room, the pictures form a narrative that begins with Beller, a sturdy woman with big legs and dirty feet, stretching. She sits on the floor, places one foot over her thigh, and cranes her neck to look over her shoulder. She stands and arches backward like a bodybuilder. After thrusting out her chest she tucks one knee coyly behind the other and tosses her head back. It looks like intermission.
The next movement, shot with a 1/1000-second strobe, shows Beller flinging herself against a heavy theater curtain over and over, like a trapped animal. Then she sits in an invisible chair against the curtain and throws an arm up in apparent exhaustion. Her hair flops over her face.
For the last act, Beller speeds up-- or rather the shutter slows down to a three-second click. The traces of her motions show up as extra arms, legs, and breasts. She puts a choke hold on herself, then begins an ecstatic marching dance, feet and arms flailing. …