The Smithsonian’s Irving Penn retrospective traces the legendary photographer’s influence in the realm of fashion and beyond.
Photographed for a story in Vogue on cosmetic surgery, Bee (1995) shows Irving Penn exploring the phrase “bee-stung lips” with stunning results.
In 1950, on the top floor of an old photography school on the Rue de Vaugirard in Paris, Irving Penn snapped one of the fiercest photos of the 20th century. He was on assignment, shooting black-and-white previews of new fall collections for Vogue, by houses like Balenciaga and Dior. In one picture, his model and muse, Lisa Fonssagrives, wears a Marcel Rochas mermaid dress. The sheer wrap she clutches seems to disappear into the theater curtain Penn used for a backdrop. As if to celebrate the striking image, Penn and Fonssagrives were married a few weeks later.
That’s only one of the highlights from an art career that has played out publicly, in the pages of Vogue, and along the walls of museums. Yet there is still much more to see. “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty,” a new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is the first survey since Penn’s death in 2009—and the first major retrospective of his work in almost 20 years. The show includes 100 photographs donated to the museum by the Irving Penn Foundation, along with works that have never been exhibited before. Some have never been seen at all.
“One of the amazing things about Penn is to realize he was productive throughout his entire career,” says Merry Foresta, curator for the exhibit and former curator of photography for the museum between 1983 and 1999. “To be working at that high level in his late ’80s and early ’90s is really amazing.”
The show proceeds chronologically, starting with early works in which Penn was learning to master his technology and hone his eyes. “Beyond Beauty” features representative photos from throughout his career, including his corner portraits of cultural icons as well as his examination of the American South. Foresta says many will be unfamiliar to viewers, while others will be old friends.
The new acquisitions at the Smithsonian include photographs dating from the late 1930s to the early 2000s. Penn may be best known for his fashion work and celebrity portraiture—represented by shots of Langston Hughes and Truman Capote, among others—but he also photographed streetscapes and still-lifes throughout his career. For these works he frequently turned to color, as seen in his arresting photo of a broken egg or one depicting an assortment of aphrodisiacs shot for Vogue in 1998 (oyster, pill, $100 bill, and an emerald Spanish fly).
“Beyond Beauty” also includes some rare photos of his time in World War II, where he drove ambulances for the American Field Service (1944–45). Penn sometimes posed local people against the backdrop of the ruins of war, Foresta says. One portrait, called Italian Intellectuals (at Rome’s Caffè Greco; 1948), shows a group of young men sitting around a café table. One of those faces was Orson Welles.
Penn’s greatest contribution to photography may have been in bridging the worlds of fashion and art. “He treated fashion on models almost as if it were a piece of sculpture,” Foresta says. “They’re really quite structural, how he posed the models.” His distinctive approach to fashion photography paved a clear path for practitioners such as Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz. Think of Bee (1995), a work that bridged his interests in beauty—as it is constructed in fashion and as it appears in nature. The photo accompanied a Vogue story on cosmetic surgery. (Penn took the idea of “bee-stung lips” seriously.) It survives as something more than clever. It is a way of thinking through the legitimacy of beauty.
In a way, “Beyond Beauty” doesn’t look past beauty at all. “Some of the most powerful photography is still what [Penn] produced for Vogue,” Foresta says. “The fashion work he did was really revolutionary.” Now through March 20, 2016. 8th and F Streets NW, 202-633-7970