For example, in 1967 he traveled to Dahomey (now the Benin Republic) in Africa, where he became intrigued not only by the locals, but by their mud sculptures portraying the trickster god Legba. Twenty-eight of the images he shot there are on view in "Dahomey 1967: Photographs by Irving Penn." The exhibition is making its sole U.S. stop at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Penn rediscovered the series of photos while looking through his archives -- they've never been exhibited or even printed before now.
MFAH curator Anne Tucker says the show has two very different themes: "One is the beauty of Africa, the people, the land and the culture of this tribe. And the other is a very visceral and fierce portrayal of one of their gods."
Penn set up a portable studio for the villager shots, which he says "transformed" giggling, misbehaving schoolkids into stoic studio subjects. After unwittingly failing to secure the permission of the village chief for the shoot, Penn smoothed things over by ingratiating himself to the leader and offering to take his portrait. It worked.
Penn captured houses, topless young girls in full tribal regalia and local fishermen at work. But it's the portraits of the Legba -- each mud form shows the unique artistic stamp of its creator -- that are the most intriguing. The linguist of the gods, Legba is portrayed with squinted eyes and a mouth etched halfway between ecstasy and horror. The sculptures are covered in offerings ranging from household items to animal blood.
"Penn's portraits are insightful, but not intended to flatter the subject," says Tucker. "He is an artist of the highest degree." Penn himself, still clicking away at 87, is less grandiose about his profession and passion. "Photographing a cake," he once said, "can be art."