The playful elegance of Irving Penn’s photos

I’ve recently done some traveling to Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal and London, art-encrusted metropolises boasting drop-dead, world-class museums, from D.C.’s National Gallery to London’s twin Tates and the mighty Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was spun around (picture Mary Tyler Moore giddy and agape in the big city) by the sheer voluminous quality around almost every corner, be it the say-what size of the magnificent Turner collections in London or the rare “Chagall: Colour and Music” show in Montreal.

Yet, for all that sublime perambulation, meandering among masterpieces, the best art show I’ve seen in a spell, hands-down, is the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met in New York. “Irving Penn: Centennial” features over 200 photos — glamorous portraits of writers, artists, actors, dancers and other outsize personalities; insane food still lifes; leonine fashion divas; and worlds more. It’s an exhilarating joy.

Avers the show catalog: It’s the “most comprehensive retrospective to date of the work of the great American photographer,” who, after a sensational stint at Vogue, died in 2009. “Penn mastered a pared-down aesthetic of studio photography that is distinguished for its meticulous attention to composition, nuance, and detail.”

Yes, but there’s so much more than that clinical description suggests, and you can see it in the work itself. (Time is of the essence: the exhibit closes July 30. The Met has posted a nice video preview of the show here.) A smoky elegance and playful naturalism imbue the hugely influential pictures — hello, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz — whose complexity and sophistication are on full display, if rarely peacocky.

Below are a few of Penn’s famous black and white celebrity portraits — some of my favorites — lucid, lush, deceptively simple images that pierce into the personalities to become indelibly iconic. (Try and identify the subjects.)

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