“Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty”
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Irving Penn (June 16, 1917 – October 7, 2009) was an American photographer known for his fashion photography, portraits, and still lifes. Penn's career included work at Vogue magazine, and independent advertising work for clients including Issey Miyake and Clinique. His work has been exhibited internationally and continues to inform the art of photography.
“Fashion photographer” practically precedes every reference to Irving Penn, but a retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., magnifies how he was much more than that.
“Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty” is the first retrospective of Penn’s work in more than 20 years.
The show is so expansive that guest curator Merry Foresta said the fashion photographer moniker is almost inadequate.
“Fashion photography is certainly the place to put him in when you think of his career. Penn thought of himself in that way and very often people write about him in that way.
But he really was an artist,” she says. “Rather than limit him to fashion photography, celebrityhood, fine art, advertising, magazines, still lives and street scenes, I would simply call him an artist.
It was very easy for him to slip between all of these mediums.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray were among the branches. Harper’s Bazaar’s Alexey Brodovitch and Vogue’s Alexander Liberman were the trunks. Roots were provided by Matisse, Picasso, Goya and other greats.
At the most basic level, it was a very symbiotic relationship in that magazines learned from the power of Penn and Penn also used the power of the magazines to make sure his pictures were reviewed my many, many thousands of people
“He also blazed the trail for a contemporary type of photographer that is comfortable making images for the gallery wall or also printed for magazines.
He created this idea that the same image could be valid for both.”
His ability to frame a subject, align the details, draw upon the light, and tie everything together was first gleaned in the Thirties after Penn roamed the streets of New York capturing passing moments.
But the photographer showed that expertise for more than 70 years — a consistency that endured throughout his career, as evinced by three unexpected tableaux — a tower of unwrapped frozen vegetables, crushed coffee cups and trampled cigarette butts.