'Exotic Even for California' - Irving Penn Photographs at Pace Gallery Palo Alto Capture the 60s Era

  • PALO ALTO, California
  • /
  • May 03, 2019

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In the exhibition "Irving Penn" at Pace Gallery Palo Alto, Hell's Angels, San Francisco, 1967, by Irving Penn.
Irving Penn, Irving Penn Foundation

“In 1967 there was word coming out of San Francisco of something stirring—new ways of living that were exotic even for California. People spoke of a new kind of young people called hippies, and of an area where they had begun to congregate called Haight-Ashbury. They seemed to have found a satisfying new life for themselves in leaving the society they were born to and in making their own. … It grew on me that I would like to look into the faces of these new San Francisco people through a camera in a daylight studio, against a simple background, away from their own daily circumstances. I suggested to the editors of Look magazine that they might care to have such a report. They said yes—hurry.”—Irving Penn, Worlds in a Small Room, (Grossman, 1974) 50

Hippie Family (Ferguson) San Francisco, 1967, by Irving Penn
Irving Penn, Irving Penn Foundation

In 1967 armed with a Rolleiflex, Irving Penn came to San Francisco. He rented a building in Sausalito that allowed him to photograph under plenty of northern light, with beams strong enough to bear the weight of the Hell’s Angels’ motorcycles. This studio—like countless studios Penn used over the course of his career—became a neutral space where the photographer and subject could focus on the task at hand to capture individual expression. Photographing them in his signature smooth pared-down style, Irving Penn brought equal consideration and expertise into his work with young hippie couples, motorcyclists, and radical nude dancers as he did with celebrated actors, artists, and luminaries of his time. Decades later, Pace Gallery is honored to bring the work of Irving Penn to the San Francisco Bay Area.

The current exhibition at Pace Gallery in Palo Alto highlights Penn’s work in the Bay Area while contextualizing these pieces in his larger oeuvre. Rare streetscape works from a 1947 visit to San Francisco are on view, including Lone Star Baptist Church99-Year-Old House, and House Front. The exhibit features over a dozen photographs from Penn’s return visit to San Francisco for Look magazine in 1967. Highlights include Hell’s Angels, and Hippie Family (Kelley). The latter is a sensitive portrait where the mother looks directly into the camera lens with an open expression, while the father, in a quarter pose, looks at the lens from a side glance. He clutches the child tightly against his chest and away from the camera, as if in protection from the viewer’s watchful gaze. The complexity with which Penn has photographed the family reveals his renowned gift in extracting the nuances of personality and social relationships.

Penn was not only one of the most seminal photographers of the 20th century, but he was also a master craftsman and innovator in photographic printing. The exhibition will present works made in gelatin silver, cibachrome, and platinum-palladium. Until Penn began using the process in the mid-1960s, platinum-palladium printing was regarded as a 19th century technique that had mostly gone extinct. Penn’s method required incredible stamina and an alchemist’s touch as he hand-coated paper with a light sensitive solution of platinum and palladium, then exposed each sheet multiple times through his large-scale film negatives using ultra-violet lamps. This printing process would take days to complete but gave a delicacy to the photographs and infused them with a soft internal glow that can be seen in Hans Hoffman (1 of 2), New York (1965) and New York Still Life (1947).

Irving Penn will be on view until May 26, 2019 at Pace Gallery located at 229 Hamilton Ave in Palo Alto. 

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