Irving Penn: Signs: Online Exhibition

Click here to view the full selection in the online viewing room.


Hamiltons' online exhibition presents early, rare work by Irving Penn, one of the most esteemed and influential photographers of the twentieth century. Captured in the late 1930s and early 1940s in New York and the American South, Penn’s photographs of signs are a rare instance of work made outside the studio. With very few exceptions, Mr. Penn first printed these pictures after revisiting his negatives in the early 2000’s and realising their foundational importance to his larger oeuvre.


Ever since antiquity, signs have served as messengers for the promotion of a business’s wares or services. These physical traces of human activity have become imbued with a range of cultural connotations and associations throughout the course of civilisation’s evolution. Whether drawn on the storefronts of Pompeii, carved out of wood and hung over shop entrances in Edo Japan, painted on panels and displayed in windows in Europe or America, or created and displayed in myriad other ways, these manifestations of commerce are a touchstone of quotidian activity.


In some of his earliest forays with a camera, Irving Penn took careful notice of handmade signs. In them, he saw personal expressions of a merchant’s hope for more business, a preacher’s longing for a congregation, a myriad of ways in which to catch the eyes of passers-by. The variety and combination of words and symbols might have appealed to the young Penn as a form of commercial ‘portraiture’, each a reflection of its owner-creator. Penn’s photographs of signs in this presentation, captured in the late 1930s and early 1940s in New York and the American South, show his early interest in stepping outside the studio, something Penn would explore further later in his career.


Irving Penn, widely recognised as one of the world’s most important photographers, is celebrated for his innovative commercial imagery and pioneering editorial contributions to Condé Nast publications. In addition to these professional assignments, Penn also pursued a range of personal projects throughout his long career, such as nudes, self-portraits and signage, as seen in this exhibition. Penn’s extensive oeuvre of work explores the boundaries of personal and public expression, and consequently art and commerce, through captivating images that expanded the creative limits of photography. Penn’s technical mastery of both black-and-white and colour photography, as well as the platinum printing process, earned him accolades in the realms of both commercial and fine art. Penn does not rely on the familiar, instead venturing into the unknown by challenging the technical limits of photography and expectations of what can, and does, comprise a memorable image. Penn’s aesthetic is the result of his readiness to push his work to the verge of what people find acceptable and the strength of his pictures lies in their power to re-orient our sensibilities.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art presented Irving Penn: Centennial in early 2017; the exhibition then travelled to C/O Berlin in Germany, the Grand Palais in Paris and the Instituto Moreira Salles in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Within this exhibition, Penn’s signs were explored, including examples of early work in New York, the American South, and Mexico. The show opened with early works from the 1930s, a series of note like photographs of storefronts, hanging signs and shadows in the urban landscape. They reveal Penn’s interest in documenting American reality, beautiful or not – a perspective also highlighted in his slightly later photographs of the American South, and seen in this presentation.