He is known for photographing swanlike necks and gloved hands, for pushing subjects into uncomfortable corners. He captured a young Audrey Hepburn in her casual sweetness, free from billowing Balenciaga and the monotony of “chic.” But Irving Penn, a forefather of fashion photography, also shot cracked eggs, red roosters and globs of matte lipstick, which the Smithsonian American Art Museum will display in 2015 in an exhibition of 160 Irving Penn photographs.
The museum has announced a gift of 100 photographs from the Irving Penn Foundation. The donation of works spans eight decades, and includes still-life photography, photos from the streets of the American South in the 1930s, portraits of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev and American poet Langston Hughes, and two photographs taken of Truman Capote in 1948 and 1979.
“We are overjoyed with the gift,” said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We’ve had a relationship with Irving Penn and his son Tom going back to 1980s when [Irving Penn] gave us 60 photographs. But he continued his career another 20 years, so we did not have the whole story . . . Together, we found 100 objects that give us a profound representation of his career.”
The prolific art and commercial photographer is best known for his angular shots and technical wizardry, pioneering a technique of platinum emulsion printing that added warmth and depth to his photographs. One of the first so-called celebrity photographers, he spent seven decades working for Vogue magazine, a post that gave him access to the likes of Grace Kelly, John F. Kennedy and the midcentury literati. Born in New Jersey, Penn lived in New York and married his muse, Swedish fashion model Lisa Fonssagrives. He transformed her into the world’s first supermodel by reimagining postwar fashion photography as a subtle and sometimes haunting form of high art.
The Smithsonian exhibition includes a wide array of Penn’s early war photography and landscapes, rounding out a retrospective collection that made Penn one of the most comprehensive photographers of the 20th century. The exhibition will travel the country after it leaves the Smithsonian. Merry Foresta, the curator of the exhibition who brokered the gift and selected the works with the Foundation, says the exhibition will be organized to illustrate Penn’s breadth and legacy.
“This is one of the most significant [Penn] collections, primarily because it is a retrospective look at his career,” Foresta said. “We can see that there are these dramatic and wonderful crossovers between drama, portraiture and landscape, and how the worlds of commerce and fine art are blurred and influence each other.”
In 1988, Penn donated 60 works spanning 1944 to 1986 to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Penn made similar gifts to the National Portrait Gallery and other museums, although his archives and ephemera are housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. After Penn’s death in 2009, the Smithsonian American Art Museum began pursuing another donation of works to complete the last two decades of his career, which were missing from the collection.
“We hoped we could acquire photographs from last 20 years, but the deeper we got into his works, the more we understood that the first part of his career wasn’t as well known,” Broun said. “The foundation was very gracious, allowing us time and care to make sure we had wonderful platinum prints and early works.”
The gift includes postwar photographs from Italy and the former Yugoslavia. Some of the most surprisingly works include early street photography of barbers in Philadelphia and rationed bread for British soldiers stationed in Italy during World War II. While the subjects differ from the famous celebrity and fashion work, Foresta said that Penn’s eye for framing photos is evident even in his early works.
Tom Penn, director of the Irving Penn Foundation and the artist’s son, says the exhibition has found a perfect home at the Smithsonian:
“The Smithsonian is a cornerstone of American culture, we’re very pleased that they now have this gift to add to the collection they already had,” Penn said.
Among the more subtle stories the exhibition will tell is Penn’s commitment to his meticulous technique. Despite his wide-ranging portfolio, one experiment he never touched was the enthusiastic movement of the industry into digital technology. Penn, though progressive, always worked on film, using the techniques he pioneered.
“He was not interested at all in using anything other than film,” Tom Penn said. “He felt that his era was one kind of technique. He didn’t want to deviate from that.”