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Irving Penn's ethnographic photos reflected diverse faces captured in brilliant black and silver

Irving Penn's ethnographic photos reflected diverse faces captured in brilliant black and silver
“Two Standing Boys with Seated Girl” by Irving Penn. (The Irving Penn Foundation)

In 1948, photographer Irving Penn went on a fashion shoot in Peru. When it was over, he traveled to Cuzco where he set about photographing the indigenous people he learned about thanks to the writing of poet Pablo Neruda.

The results presented a stunning ethnographic study of cultural adornment that many people in America and Europe had not yet seen. With his talent for capturing the individuality of his subjects, and his eye for fashion in its many forms, Penn created a portfolio of work that shed light on unfamiliar worlds and ways of life.

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Thirty-two of these portraits, half of which are previously unseen, are on display at Fahey/Klein Gallery through Oct. 6 in an exhibition titled, “Irving Penn: Worlds in a Small Room, Seen and Unseen.”

"Man With Pink Face” by Irving Penn.
"Man With Pink Face” by Irving Penn. (Conde Nast)

His work distinguishes itself thanks to the traveling studio that Penn set up at each site he visited. It was basically a simple tent that allowed for no outside distractions, says curator David Fahey. By isolating his subjects in a plain environment, he was able to concentrate exclusively on the person sitting in front of him.

“There were no distractions or extraneous objects to draw your eye away from the person, the face and what they were wearing,” Fahey says. “He created simple but telling portraits that really speak to the truth and honesty of the subjects.”

The portable studio also presented a neutral meeting place where his world could collide with theirs.

“Child Dressed for the Brides Market, Morocco” by Irving Penn.
“Child Dressed for the Brides Market, Morocco” by Irving Penn. (The Irving Penn Foundation)

“He wanted to make an authentic record of their physical presence,” Fahey says of Penn and the people he photographed on trips to Spain, Morocco, New Guinea and Nepal, among others. “They would step into this studio from an old world into a new world.”

Penn’s work, says Fahey, is a marriage of creativity and technical proficiency. “He’s a true master.”

“Child Painted White, New Guinea" by Irving Penn.
“Child Painted White, New Guinea" by Irving Penn. (The Irving Penn Foundation)

“Irving Penn: Worlds in a Small Room, Seen and Unseen”

Where: 148 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles

When: Through Oct. 6

"Cuzco Town Photographer With Barefoot Girl.”
"Cuzco Town Photographer With Barefoot Girl.” (The Irving Penn Foundation)
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