Public display of affection! For the iconic photographer Irving Penn, fashion and art itself, from Jane Corkin at her eponymous Toronto gallery

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“I love them. How can you not love them?”

Like a hummingbird darting from photo to photo, as she jets me with her enthusiasm, Jane Corkin is giving me a personal tour of an Irving Penn exhibition, just up at her namesake gallery.

Her bespectacled brio is ever in effect, even as the years have marched on (it’s been nearly four decades since Maclean’s magazine dubbed her the “First Lady of Photography”). The pluck, too, of the Mary Richards vintage, or possibly the “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Corkin is a one-woman billboard for that adage: do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

Irving Penn, Hippie Family (Ferguson), San Francisco, 1967. © Irving Penn Foundation. On view at Corkin Gallery (Toronto, Canada), November 24, 2021 – January 29, 2022

An art-world hero in Toronto and beyond — one of a handful of people on the continent to really boost photography as a medium, long before others got on that arty train — it would seem the fourth time’s a charm for Corkin. At least when it comes to the legendary lensman Penn. “I did three previous shows of his work,” she says and, indeed, she knew him personally from her visits to his studio in Manhattan. This latest retrospective? The first since his death in 2009. It was time.

Those lines. Those silhouettes. That studied rigour.

In this, the cruelest of seasons, the stark beauty of the work is welcome — his work as a portraitist so synonymous with Vogue that on the occasion of his 90th birthday, the magazine’s legendary editor Anna Wintour devoted the entire July 2007 issue to him (riffing on his 66 years at the magazine and his unprecedented 165 covers!). Later, Penn’s final assignment in its pages? A still-life, famously, of dark-spotted bananas for a story on the signs of aging.

“When I was a little girl, I would always look at his photos. I would rip them out of the magazine. I did not know the name Penn, but I knew the work,” Corkin had started to say, hearkening back to her young self growing up in Boston (many years before she would begin a love affair with Canada, after attending Queen’s University, and burnishing her photography bona fides when she landed a job with Toronto’s David Mirvish Gallery in the 1970s).

Did young Jane put those cut-ups on her bedroom walls? I ask.

“I put them in files,” the gallerista laughs. “I was very organized.”

Irving Penn, Marchande de Ballons (B), Paris, 1950. © Condé Nast. On view at Corkin Gallery (Toronto, Canada), November 24, 2021 – January 29, 2022.

In particular, she remembers the last six pages of Vogue that were once the exclusive province of Penn — a kind of carte blanche — when he was first wooed by legendary Condé Nast honcho Alexander Liberman to join the magazine. A vivid miscellanea, unrelated to his commercial commitments, those pages would often showcase his so-called “Small Trades” photos — an oeuvre devoted to workmen, street vendors, skilled tradespeople. Many of which factor into the exhibition up now in Toronto.

Car park attendant. Train coach waiter. Blast furnace tender. Sandblaster. Chimney sweep. Window washer. Balloon seller. The titles attached to those particular pics — all of them imbued with quiet dignity and glamorous in their own way — speak for themselves. They mesh quite neatly with some of the outwardly more fashion-oriented photos they are hung next to in many instances here inside Corkin Gallery; in dialogue, too, with the 1960s San Francisco hippie photos that form one-third of this particular exhibition.

“He was absolutely an anthropologist,” Corkin emphasizes, standing up straighter in her indigo-blue Fluevog booties.

Zigging, then zagging, we eventually land on an image of Lisa Fonssagrives, the Swedish stunner often called the “first supermodel.” So besotted was Penn, after capturing her for a Vogue spread in 1947, he married the woman. They were together until her death in the 1990s. There is only one photo of her here (“Cocoa-coloured Balenciaga dress,” the caption reads) and it brings to mind what I have read about her: how her knowledge of the camera and her training as a dancer infused her poses with a particular grace; how she thought of herself as moving sculpture; how much he influenced her and she him. A decades-long creative partnership, if there ever was one.

Irving Penn, The Tarot Reader (Jean Patchett and Bridget Tichenor), New York, 1949. © Condé Nast. On view at Corkin Gallery (Toronto, Canada), November 24, 2021 – January 29, 2022.

Did Penn ever actually attend any of the prior exhibitions devoted to his work, curated by Corkin? Going back to that first groundbreaking show back in the 1980s, in her first art space in a one-time shoe factory on Front Street (the first gallery to open outside of Yorkville, here in the city)? I did wonder.

The answer: yes and no.

“He didn’t like openings. He was a quiet man, dedicated to his craft,” she says. But on one occasion, eons ago, the master did unceremoniously slip into Toronto, come see the exhibition and only later inform Corkin via handwritten note that he had even been in and was thankful. Elusive!

“I am amazed by how people continue to respond to his work; people from all ages, from 80s to those in their 20s and 30s,” she adds, turning back to this present-day catch-all. “The children of former clients are coming in now … and are interested in acquiring. Penn really is timeless. It does not get old.”

“Irving Penn: Small Trades, 1960s San Francisco, Fashion” is on at Corkin Gallery in the Distillery District until Dec. 19, closes during the holidays and continues again in the new year. See www.corkingallery.com

Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist covering culture and society. Follow him on Twitter: @shinangovani





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