Major Irving Penn Retrospective features Summer of Love photographs

Oct 23, 2023

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Irving Penn. Audrey Hepburn (detail), Paris,1951. Gelatin silver print. Image: 13 3/4 x 13 7/16 in. (35 x 34.2cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation, 2021. © Condé Nast.

Irving Penn
March 16–July 21, 2024  

Major retrospective of one of the 20th century’s leading photographers features San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love

SAN FRANCISCO – Irving Penn is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers, renowned for his pared-down aesthetic, exemplary printmaking, and artistic experimentation. A regular contributor to Vogue magazine for more than six decades, he revolutionized fashion photography in the post-war period, positioning models against neutral backdrops to emphasize gesture and expression. Although best known for his psychologically penetrating portraits, Penn was a prolific artist whose career spanned 70 years and a wide array of interests. The major retrospective Irving Penn captures every period of that dynamic career behind the camera, beginning in the late 1930s and continuing into the first decade of the 21st century. Organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and presented exclusively on the West Coast at the de Young museum, the exhibition brings together approximately 175 works—including Penn’s portraits of celebrities, cultural luminaries, and laborers with the tools of their trades; abstract nudes and early documentary street scenes; compositions of wilting flowers, signage, and street debris; fashion studies and meticulous still lifes—along with a newly enhanced section dedicated solely to Penn’s photographs from the 1967 San Francisco Summer of Love.

“Irving Penn is a giant of 20th-century photography whose portraits and still lifes were transformative for the medium,” remarked Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “We are delighted to present the most extensive retrospective of his work to date here in San Francisco, epicenter of the countercultural movements Penn so masterfully captured in his vibrant photographs from the 1967 Summer of Love. The energy of those images underscores the longstanding impact of Bay Area culture within the United States and, indeed, around the world.” 

The exhibition Irving Penn explores the photographer’s profound interest in the ephemerality and complexity of the human condition, evidenced not only in his portraits, but also in the masterful still lifes that bookend his career. Approaching photography as a fine art long before it was widely recognized as such, Penn paired nuanced composition with an uncanny talent for observing human expression, attitude, and demeanor. He was celebrated as one of Vogue’s top photographers, creating a record of 20th-century cultural history in his images. The exhibition presents Penn’s photographs of such leading lights of the screen as Marlene Dietrich and Audrey Hepburn, renowned designers Gianni Versace and Yves Saint Laurent, and foremost writers Truman Capote and Joan Didion. But Penn’s egalitarian spirit and heightened photographic sensitivity made his portraits of everyday people—tradespeople, street vendors, and residents of Cuzco, Peru—equally moving and powerful.

In 1967, commissioned by Look magazine, Penn traveled to San Francisco to record the Summer of Love, photographing Hells Angels, hippie communities, local rock bands the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company, and members of the avant-garde San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop. His impetus to “look into the faces of these new San Francisco people through a camera in a daylight studio” would memorialize the defining countercultural movement of the 1960s on film. An eight-page spread, “The Incredibles” was published in the magazine early the following year, and is featured in the exhibition at the de Young in an exclusive, enhanced section devoted to Penn’s San Francisco series. Also on view are his rarely seen, experimental photographs of nude workshop dancers performing American choreographer Anna Halprin’s The Bath.

“Penn’s images of West Coast residents capture a moment of electrifying social change, which forever altered the cultural landscape of the Bay Area,” remarked Emma Acker, Curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and organizing curator of the exhibition. “The Fine Arts Museums’ presentation of Irving Penn includes an expanded selection of these portraits, emphasizing our Museums’ location at the epicenter of the countercultural movements of the 1960s, particularly the Summer of Love.” 

Opening at the de Young museum on March 16 and running through July 21, Irving Penn is the most comprehensive retrospective of the renowned photographer to date, revealing his extraordinary artistic versatility and range. 

Exhibition Organization 

The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with The Irving Penn Foundation, and in association with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Lead Sponsorship comes from the John Pritzker Family Fund. Major support comes from the Bernard Osher Foundation and the Michael Taylor Trust, and significant support from Dagmar Dolby and Jason E. Moment.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, comprising the de Young in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, are the largest public arts institution in San Francisco.

The de Young museum originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in 2005. Reflecting an active conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections on view include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art. The Legion of Honor museum was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. It offers unique insight into the art historical, political, and social movements of the previous 4,000 years of human history, with holdings including ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; and the largest collection of works on paper in the western United States.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco occupy unceded land of the Ramaytush Ohlone, who are the original inhabitants of what is now the San Francisco Peninsula. The greater Bay Area is also the ancestral territory of other Ohlone peoples, as well as the Miwok, Yokuts, and Patwin. We acknowledge, recognize, and honor the Indigenous ancestors, elders, and descendants whose nations and communities have lived in the Bay Area over many generations and continue to do so today. We respect the enduring relationships that exist between Indigenous peoples and their homelands. We are committed to partnering with Indigenous communities to raise awareness of their legacy and engage with the history of the region, the impacts of genocide, and the dynamics of settler colonialism that persist today.

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