He is known for his fashion and portrait photographs, especially the works that appeared in Vogue, but with a selection of 146 photographs, the Smithsonian American Art Museum presents a much more complex image of famous photographer Irving Penn. This exhibition – the first retrospective since Penn’s death in 2009 – strives to show Penn’s entire career, with his shifting artistic perspectives, rather than focusing solely on his fashion aesthetic.
The exhibition opens with early works from the 1930s, a series of photographs resembling notes of storefronts, hanging signs, and shadows in the cityscape. They reveal Penn’s interest in documenting American reality, beautiful or not – a perspective that is also exemplified in his somewhat later photographs of the American South. It is interesting to note the sense of the distance between the photographer and the subject in these works. Unlike his later photographs, in which he confronts his models, he seems to be restraining himself here, observer rather than participant. In Snowballs 2, 3 and 5 cents the attitudes of the men lounging outside the booth dominate the image, as Penn’s shadow slips from the bottom edge, creeping into the frame a bit oddly.
While Penn’s still lifes are undeniably intriguing, especially when they reveal his enduring interest in surrealism, his portraits are all striking. We can trace the changes in his studio layout, from his 1940s portraits, which show famous figures such as Salvador Dalí and Truman Capote confined in tight spaces, to his very different images (sometimes of the same models) of late from the 50s and 60s, where the faces of his subject fill almost the entire frame.
Penn’s interest in fashion permeates most of his artwork. In particular, we see how the trips around the world that he has enjoyed through his work at Vogue informed her sense of style and beauty. In a series of portraits, workers in London and Paris are accorded the dignity of any Vogue model. Nearby, a set of prints of women from Morocco, New Guinea and Cameroon stands in stark contrast to earlier portraits of American women posed with their tight 1940s silhouettes. A particularly striking image of four Moroccan women covered in sheets (Four Guedras – the Guedra is a type of dance) is followed in the next room by a photograph for Vogue in which Penn’s model wife Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn wears a dress and scarf at the Bahia Palace in Marrakech.
The composition of each fashion photo seems to be put together to give an impression of femininity or style, rather than to offer a clear image of the clothes themselves. Penn’s emphasis on silhouettes, draped fabrics and dark tones results in images that cross the line between fashion and art. His later fashion works such as Ball Gown by Olivier Theyskens for Nina Ricci, and her photos of Issey Miyake’s dresses arguably demonstrate a renewed interest in clothing design, but they also reveal Penn’s growing interest in movement – another evolution in the larger aesthetic of the artist.
The chronological set-up of this show works well, highlighting some pretty drastic changes in Penn’s approach over the decades. As the world of the 20th century evolved, Penn used his own changing experiences to inspire new techniques. As he shifted from his ‘surrealist vision’ of the 1930s, through the freer style of the more stable postwar years, to an increasingly elegant and ‘modernist’ aesthetic, Penn became more daring in his photographic convictions, confidently following his own interests. But throughout, we see Penn return to themes of beauty and decadence, and a certain weirdness that comes from merging reality with a vivid imagination, both in the real world and in the glamorous world of the world. fashion.
‘Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty’ is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until March 20, 2016.