Irving Penn photos on view in Philly
PHILADELPHIA -- Sometimes, a wad of gum is just a wad of gum.
But when it's the muse of photographer Irving Penn, whose 32 photographs of flattened chewing gum on New York City asphalt are on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the gooey circles are transformed from detritus to mysterious -- even beautiful -- works of art.
Many of the lushly printed black-and-white images don't even resemble gum. Photographed through Penn's lens in great detail and enlarged to many times their actual size, some resemble polished stones in a stream, islands seen from overhead, ghostly faces and skulls, embryos and galaxies hovering in space.
"It's an exercise (like) looking at clouds," says Katherine Ware, the museum's curator of photographs.
The exhibition "Underfoot: Photographs by Irving Penn" runs through Nov. 28. It is the first -- and at this point the only -- place where the photographs will be on public display.
"He has taken an extremely pedestrian subject -- both literally and figuratively -- and treats it very poetically. He's not trying to be witty or ironic," Ware says.
Penn, 87, began photographing the patches of gum in 1999. The gelatin silver prints, made in 2001 and 2002, represent one of the most recent bodies of work in a nearly 70-year career brimming with influential and innovative portraiture, still life and fashion photography.
The "Underfoot" series -- all the photograph titles consist of that word and a number -- recalls Penn's groundbreaking and then-controversial 1970s platinum prints of street debris. The established fashion photographer and celebrity portraitist brought cigarette butts, crumbled wrappers, crushed paper cups and other decidedly unglamorous materials into his studio, carefully assembling them into ephemeral still lifes, and elevating them to high art.
A few of the "Underfoot" pieces also are reminiscent of Penn's female nudes from the 1940s and 1950s, which often highlighted the figures' fleshy midriffs.
Penn studied in the 1930s at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art -- now known as The University of the Arts -- and started out as a painter. He quickly concluded that the medium was not his forte and got a job with Vogue in 1943, soon landing what would be the first of scores of covers and fashion spreads that continue to the present.
"Photographing a cake can be art," he said at the 1953 opening of his New York City studio, where he still does commercial and gallery work. He rarely grants interviews, allows himself to be photographed or discusses his work, and could not immediately be reached through his studio.
"The thread that holds it all together is that he really wants you to look closely," Ware says. "He's drawn to the beauty in the world, and he wants you to see it."