Photographer Irving Penn had a unique style that was always in Vogue — and in other magazines over the past 60 years. His work was especially suited to the glossies. “The simplicity just leapt off the magazine page,” says Merry Foresta, curator of “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty,” opening Friday at the American Art Museum. But Penn was much more than a fashion photographer. “He assimilated fine art and commercial photography into a single visual culture,” Foresta says. No matter the subject of Penn’s photography, “the same high standard and artistic impulse always came into play.”
Covering Penn’s decadeslong career, “Beyond Beauty” features the first presentation of 100 Penn photographs since they were donated to the museum by the Irving Penn Foundation in 2013. It’s the museum’s second batch of Penn donations. The first was in 1988, when Penn was still alive (he died in 2009 at age 92). “He was a remarkable personality,” says Foresta, the museum’s photography curator at the time of the first donation. “His work is a great reflection of him. He worked hard to get as close to perfection as he possibly could. He was very intense in a way that really made you pay attention. It made you want to work as hard as he did.”
The exhibition, Penn’s first retrospective in almost a decade, features a total of 146 of his photographs from the 1930s to the 2000s: still lifes and celebrity portraits, street photos and iconic ads. As a special treat, they’ll be accompanied by Super 8 films of Penn in Morocco, filmed by his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn. After the show closes in D.C., it will travel to Dallas; Cambridge, Mass.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Wichita, Kan.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW; Fri. through March 20, free.
‘Mouth (For L’Oreal),’ New York, 1986
“Penn sometimes had an awkward and edgy take on beauty,” curator Merry Foresta says. “He was always pushing commercial photography to the edge.” Penn shot this for a L’Oreal ad when he was 69 years old. “It’s amazing for an artist so late in his career to still be pushing so hard,” Foresta says.
‘Young Boy, Pause Pause,’ American South, 1941
Penn, who lived in New York for most of his life, didn’t get into photography until after he graduated from college, where he studied painting and drawing. As people in their 20s are wont to do, Penn “traveled from New York to Mexico to discover himself” after college, Foresta says. Passing through the South right before the U.S. entered World War II, he shot many street scenes like this one for his American South series, one of Foresta’s favorites.
‘Kerchief Glove (Dior),’ Paris, 1950
By 1950, Penn was already shooting regularly for Vogue. Taken for a Dior ad in the magazine, this photograph is a great example of the photographer’s ongoing experimentation with light and shadow. Penn was obsessed with the quality of light at the studio, Foresta says, specifically requesting that the photo shoot take place in a room on the top floor, with skylights. “He photographed the light as much as he photographed anything else,” Foresta says.
‘Woman in Moroccan Palace (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn),’ Marrakech, 1951
Penn treated his models as more than just live mannequins. “He saw them as real people with personalities and interesting things to say,” Foresta says. “And he thought of his photos of them more as portraits.” This photograph shows Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, widely acknowledged as the world’s first supermodel, a year after she married Penn.
‘Issey Miyake Fashion: White and Black,’ New York, 1990
Penn had a decadelong collaboration with Japanese designer Issey Miyake. “Penn thought of the clothes models wore as sculpture,” Foresta says. Clearly, this photograph is not really about the clothes (you can’t even tell what they are). “It seems Miyake would design clothes specifically to be photographed by Penn,” Foresta says.
‘Head in Ice,’ New York, 2002
“In his final works, Penn went back to his roots in surrealism,” Foresta says. She appreciates this photograph for its “cool beauty.” Penn created this unusual work for Vogue when he was 85. He continued to shoot, develop and print works continuously until his death.
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