The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Irving Penn: Centennial is the most comprehensive retrospective to date of the great American photographer. Born in 1917, this exhibition marks what would have been his 100th birthday. Over the course of his nearly 70-year career, Penn made a name for himself photographing fashion and cultural icons including Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, and Marlene Dietrich with his minimal yet graceful style. Constructing his sets from blank walls, corners of rooms, carpet draped over boxes, and a gray backdrop, Penn isolated his subjects, allowing viewers to focus on their pose, expressions, and style.
Midway through the exhibition hangs an old gray theater curtain that Penn used as a backdrop. The curtain made its first appearance in Penn’s photographs in Paris in 1950, and he carried it with him to various studios in New York and London over the next five decades. Displayed in a gallery amidst photographs of Francis Bacon, Audrey Hepburn, and others, its looming presence serves as a reminder that in photographs comprised of a single subject, the backdrop becomes a key player. After shuffling through several galleries of photographs made with this curtain, it becomes easy to ignore it from one image to the next. But turning the corner and being confronted by this 10-foot-tall piece of fabric testifies to the significance of simplicity.
I watched numerous iPhone-toting museum-goers strike a pose, turning a passive viewing experience into an interactive exhibition, easily Instagramed with a cute hashtag. A quick search of #irvingpenncentennial reveals over 700 posts, many of which involve Penn’s backdrop, some with captions like “Obligatory #IrvingPenn backdrop shot.” This kind of visitor engagement is a smart strategy for The Met, which has recently experienced financial troubles.
As I took my own turn in front of the curtain, I wondered how many Instagramers took mental notes on Penn’s photographs and put them to use in their accidental homages? How many used the black and white filter? Or observed the sturdy pose of T.S. Eliot, Nicole Kidman’s hands in the pockets of a Chanel jacket, or the tilted head of Penn’s wife Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn modeling a Marcel Rochas mermaid dress for Vogue? Not unlike bringing art students to the museum to sketch, the presence and accessibility of the backdrop might cause some to pay closer attention to the work in the show.
This curtain is just a curtain. Yet it is also a shining example of the importance we place on objects that belonged to famous people. Had it hung anywhere else, or been owned by anyone else, it might have been used as a painting drop cloth before being discarded. But with Penn’s name attached, this curtain has been transformed into its own art object. By photographing ourselves in front of it, we are each hoping to be transformed as well.
Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures.