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

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

Like a hummingbird passing from photo to photo, as she projects me with her enthusiasm, Jane Corkin personally takes me on a tour of an Irving Penn exhibition, right in his namesake gallery.

Her bespectacled brilliance is still in effect, even over the years (it’s been almost four decades since Maclean’s magazine dubbed her the “first lady of photography”). The picking, too, of the vintage Mary Richards, or perhaps of the “Wonderful Mrs. Maisel”. Corkin is the only notice board with that adage: do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

A hero of the art world in Toronto and beyond – one of the few people on the continent to truly promote photography as a medium, long before others got on this artistic train – it would appear that the fourth time is a charm for Corkin. At least when it comes to the legendary lensman Penn. “I’ve done three exhibitions of his work already,” she says and, indeed, she knew him personally from his visits to his studio in Manhattan. This last retrospective? The first since his death in 2009. It was about time.

These lines. These silhouettes. This studied rigor.

In this cruelest season of seasons, the austere beauty of the work is welcome – her work as a portrait painter so synonymous with Vogue that, on her 90th birthday, legendary magazine editor Anna Wintour dedicated her to her work as a portrait painter. ‘entire July 2007 issue (riffs on his 66 years at the magazine and his 165 unpublished covers!). Later, Penn’s final mission in its pages? A famous still life of spotted bananas for a story on the signs of aging.

“When I was little, I always looked at her photos. I would rip them out of the magazine. I didn’t know Penn’s name, but I did know the job, ”Corkin had started to say, recalling her childhood in Boston (many years before she began a love affair with Canada, after dating Queen’s University, and polishing her photography in good faith when she landed a job at the David Mirvish Gallery in Toronto in the 1970s).

Did young Jane put these cut-ups on the walls of her bedroom? I ask.

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

Irving Penn, Balloon Merchant (B), Paris, 1950. © Condé Nast.  On view at the Corkin Gallery (Toronto, Canada), from November 24, 2021 to January 29, 2022.

In particular, she remembers the last six pages of Vogue that were once the exclusive province of Penn – sort of flames – when he was first courted by the legendary big boss of Condé Nast, Alexander Liberman, to join the magazine. A lively mix, unrelated to his commercial commitments, these pages often featured his so-called “small trades” photos – a work devoted to workers, street vendors, skilled craftsmen. Many of them are reflected in the exhibition currently taking place in Toronto.

Parking attendant. Train coach server. Blast furnace offer. Sandy. Chimney sweep. Window cleaner. Balloon seller. The titles attached to these particular photos – all imbued with quiet dignity and glamor in their own way – speak for themselves. They pair quite well with some of the outwardly more fashion-oriented photos that they hang alongside in many cases here inside the Corkin Gallery; also in dialogue with the hippie photos of San Francisco of the 1960s which form a third of this particular exhibition.

“He was absolutely an anthropologist,” Corkin points out, standing straighter in his indigo blue Fluevog boots.

Zigzagging, then zagging, we end up landing on an image of Lisa Fonssagrives, the stunning Swedish woman often described as “first model”. So passionate was Penn, after capturing her for a Vogue in 1947, he married the woman. They were together until her died in the 90s. There is only one photo of her here (“Balenciaga cocoa color dress», We read in the caption) and it reminds me of what I read about her: how her knowledge of the camera and her training as a dancer infused her poses with a particular grace; how she saw herself as a sculpture in motion; how much he influenced her and she him. A creative partnership spanning decades, if ever there was one.

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

Has Penn ever attended any of the previous exhibitions dedicated to his work, organized by Corkin? Going back to that groundbreaking first exhibition in the 1980s, in its first art space in a former shoe factory on Front Street (the first gallery to open outside of Yorkville, here in the city)? I asked myself.

The answer: yes and no.

“He didn’t like openings. He was a calm man, devoted to his profession, ”she said. But on one occasion, eons ago, the master unceremoniously slipped into Toronto, came to see the exhibit, and only informed Corkin through a handwritten note that he had even come and was grateful. Elusive!

“I am amazed at the way people continue to respond to his work; people of all ages, from 80 to 20 and 30, ”she adds, looking back at this tote today. “The children of former clients are entering now… and are interested in the acquisition. Penn is truly timeless. He does not age.

“Irving Penn: Small Trades, 1960s San Francisco, Fashion” airs at the Corkin Gallery in the Distillery District until December 19, closes during the holidays and continues again into the New Year. See
Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance columnist who covers culture and society. Follow him on Twitter: @shinangovani

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