Irving Penn is most famous for his fashion photography, still lifes, and portraiture, but Irving Penn: Underfoot (which opens today in the Modern Wing's Bucksbaum Gallery) explores an often overlooked topic right outside the artist's door. Instead of looking at the world around him, Penn pointed his camera to the ground to capture what former Art Institute director James Wood referred to as the "cosmos underfoot."
I have to admit, the first time I saw an image of one of these photographs on my computer screen, I began making galactic associations. To me, the white spots across the pavement do resembled clusters of stars across the night sky. But as I looked more closely at images, I began to pick out objects: matches, twigs, cigarettes. Suddenly, my comet-like objects came into focus. They were chewed gum! Never before have I examined a dirty piece of sidewalk so intently. A sort of odd beauty is created in the subtleties of the photographs.
Besides 36 gelatin silver prints—presented complete for the first time—the exhibition also includes the tools Penn used to create the photographs. For most of them, he used a medium-format Hasselblad camera specially fitted with tubes to extend the lens nearly to the ground.