Before I paid much attention to photographers’ credits in fashion magazines, I remember the wonderful shock of the slightly crazed, insuperably elegant photographs of foods or fading flowers that I often encountered in Vogue. Exuding an indelible, instantly recognizable style, they were the work of the great Irving Penn — the first modern photographer whose name was fixed in my young brain.
Penn’s images were casual yet exquisite in every way: With their drizzled liquids, spilled spices and other raw ingredients, or their strewn petals, they felt innovative and intimate, as if tossed off by someone who had just exited, smiling. But their contrasting textures and vivid colors, enhanced by the sparkling white seamless background paper, and the wit and poise of their compositions, seemed like art, and almost out of place in a magazine. They evoked the still lifes of Chardin and Manet, but were now and new, with a refinement of detail and color that only a camera could manage. As I browsed through an issue, I would hope to find their wonderful disorder and their bold scale, which was close to actual size. I pored over them, detail by detail.
Two food photographs, taken in 1947, greet you at the entrance of “Irving Penn: Centennial” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a crystalline exhibition in which nearly every gallery exhales its own delicious breeze. “Still Life With Watermelon, New York” features a compote of fruit, a rumpled napkin, a loaf of broken bread and even a stray fly atop a lemon, and looks to Spanish and Dutch still life for inspiration, but has some contemporary slovenliness. “Salad Ingredients, New York” is more minimal, spreading about the makings of a salad and its dressing, including a half-used head of Bibb lettuce, peppercorns, salt, an egg yolk, lemon and a little vinegar and oil pooling in two spoons. Leave the mess, take the salad.