From Fashion Models to Frozen Food: The DMA's Irving Penn Exhibit Shows His Unique Eye for Beauty

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Irving Penn achieved great artistic and commercial success and became one of the most iconic photographers of the 20th century. A touring exhibit organized by the Smithsonian and presented by The Dallas Museum of Art, Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is the first retrospective of his 70-year career in nearly two decades. These 140 photographs capture the depth of his work, from fashion photos that appeared in Vogue, to images of the American South in the 1940s, celebrity portraits, still lifes and private studio images.

Some of the most striking images are the first ones you see, early photographs Penn took after buying his first camera and walking the streets of New York City, mostly shooting storefront windows. They look like the work of a Surrealist. Penn did travel to Mexico to meet with the Surrealists and even made a brief attempt at painting. The influence stayed with him throughout his career as a photographer. Photographing a storefront window also captures a picture within a picture, a motif that he never abandoned.

In Mexico, Penn also took what he considered his first serious picture when he photographed a shop window with brooms in Mexico City in 1942. It was accepted for the Surrealist periodical VVV. Edited by Andre Breton, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, the publication featured work by many of the key Surrealists. Another photo from Mexico, of chicks in a jar, was not printed until 40 years later. Interestingly, it blends in very well with his work from the '80s, aside from it being in black and white.

Influenced by Walker Evans, Penn’s photographs from his journeys through the South are of young men lounging by barbershops and stores. They are in sharp contrast to his well-known portraits of celebrities, but capture a young artist learning how to see the world with his camera. Penn was learning how to use his equipment, figuring out how light falls, noticing how people react to a camera, and developing an understanding of how things look when they are photographed.

Penn started photographing for Vogue magazine in 1943 and the photos represent a very different era of fashion magazines. They were once important vehicles of culture, publishing not only innovative photographs by Penn and some of his fiercest rivals, but also stories by writers like Truman Capote as well as coverage of ballet, theater and art. Taking portraits for Vogue was often a way for Penn to honor his commitment to celebrating the arts.

Penn also had a fabulous lifestyle, as evidenced by his photographs from Lima, which accompanied a story about what to wear while visiting Peru. After walking around for days in despair, unable to figure out what he wanted to shoot, a female model finally sat down and took her shoes off because her feet hurt. It was exactly the image Penn wanted to advertise the shoes. Through his photographs, Penn established a narrative of an American tourist wandering through the city.

After shooting for Vogue in Lima, Penn took a train to Cuzco, rented a photographer’s studio, and photographed Native Quechua Peruvians. Even with a language barrier, Penn somehow convinced people to sit in a studio for some raw photographs. He used very little backdrop, making use of a studio curtain before doing away with it. Penn had both commercial and experimental bodies of work that seemed to feed of each other.

Penn was among the first photographers to have subjects pose against simple white or grey backdrops. He used this method to create some of his best-known portraits. Francis Bacon and John Cage are two of the eye openers. Penn also came up with the corner portrait. Setting up stage walls close together, he put his subjects in the corner and got interesting results with this stripped-down, claustrophobic approach. Salvador Dali looks perfectly comfortable in his corner portrait; Truman Capote, not so much.

Penn’s still lifes of objects like steel, flowers, food and dishes are carefully arranged with a Renaissance painter’s eye. But it isn’t just beauty that makes these photographs so captivating. Penn often perverts the composition: an ant stands on ripe cheese, flowers are dying, food is rotting or partially eaten, a skull sits on a carafe.

One section of the exhibit perfectly shows Penn’s dual success in the artistic and commercial worlds. There are flawless photographs of impossibly beautiful people, work he did during the day as one of the most sought after fashion photographers on the planet. But there are also portraits of artists' models — people who actually look like people — that he shot at night. These works use experimental processes, with bleaching and long exposures, and look almost like sculptures.

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is an essential retrospective, meticulously curated to provide a fascinating glimpse of the evolution of a classic photographer. It sheds light on the surprising depth and innovation of Penn’s body of work, a catalog of cultural and historical figures.

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty runs from Saturday, April 15, to August 14.

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