The photographs of Irving Penn easily could fill three separate exhibitions.
There are his most famous works — his dramatic fashion photographs for Vogue magazine. From the same publication are the portraits that forced his subjects into a tight corner, and his commercial work for products as varied as cosmetics, dog food and feminine hygiene products. Those images were viewed by millions and brought him fame.
He also created a photographic series of indigenous people in their native dress — lovely nudes that magazines and galleries refused to display for more than 30 years — and exquisitely photographed and printed trash, which sparked heated discourse. These are less familiar as the work of Penn.
Representatives of all these groundbreaking series are on display in “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty,” at the Dallas Museum of Art, in the first retrospective of his rich 70-year career.
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The exhibition, organized by guest curator Merry Foresta at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, shuffles between chronological and stylistic order, which careens about a bit between the slick, graphic fashion shots and frozen peas, while not far away is the bare but heavily accessorized Sitting Enga Woman.
140 photographs in the exhibit
The photographs of Lisa Fonssagrives, the Swedish beauty he married in 1950, produced some of Penn’s and Vogue’s most iconic mid-20th-century images. She was an icy blonde in the Hitchcockian style; she was also terrifically elongated and malleable. She was his muse, and the high-contrast photographs of her in large hats, opera-length gloves, evening gowns and pearls, gesturing with a cigarette (then considered sophisticated) are as significant for their time as fins on a Cadillac.
Over the decades, he photographed most of the models-whose-names-we-know, but the collaborations with his wife are the most interesting.
He also provided Vogue with a regular monthly feature that included portraits of the bold-faced names of the times. Artists, musicians, ballet dancers, politicians and authors trudged to Penn’s studio to be stuffed into his tight-fitting corner.
This was a departure for portraiture. Until Penn demanded their attendance, portraits had been done on the sitters’ turf, surrounded by their most familiar objects. Penn wanted them stripped bare, in a tight space they had to act their way out of. These black-and-white portraits in the identical gray corner became legendary.
Penn’s acute-corner photo booth was effective in revealing their personalities in front of the camera.
“So many of his fashion shots seem composed; nothing seems directed by him in these portraits,” said Tracy Achor Hayes, editorial director for Neiman Marcus, at one of the recent seminars on the exhibition.
A very young Truman Capote crouched in a chair, wrapped in an oversized herringbone Chesterfield, gazes from under his flop of blond bangs with an air of crazy that puts the viewer on notice that the baby-faced author was an enfant terrible.
Penn was an American man of the 20th century trying to suggest in these photographs that the definition of difference — Western or non-Western, fashion or decoration — is only a matter of artistic context rather than political or social debate.
Merry Foresta, exhibit organizer
Salvador Dali, looking his dandyish self, squares off in right angles mimicking the angularity of the set.
Often the rough panel edges are shown in Penn’s photographs; so are the edges of his fabric backdrop on which he poses his models, revealing the bare room behind. The artifice of the studio is highlighted, a reminder these are a constructed fiction.
He reigned at Vogue magazine until Diana Vreeland jumped ship from Harper’s Bazaar in 1962 and brought her pet photographer over to Vogue. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the fashion office for both Richard Avedon and Penn.
“Suddenly, competition became acute,” Foresta says.
Penn branched out into advertising jobs and travels to photograph indigenous people of threatened cultures. These photographs of the elaborately dressed or completely veiled people in Morocco, Mexico, India, New Guinea or Cameroon are similar to the fashion shots in that he uses the same mottled canvas backdrop.
“While today we might question the appropriateness of a Western eye, and a male one at that, appraising exotic cultures, Penn’s desire, I believe, was to further declare that decorative beauty is an absolute value,” Foresta says.
“Penn was an American man of the 20th century trying to suggest in these photographs that the definition of difference — Western or non-Western, fashion or decoration — is only a matter of artistic context rather than political or social debate.”
Throughout this time he continued to photograph for Vogue. He shot his last cover in 2007, two years before he died at age 92. It was of Nicole Kidman, who said he was her favorite photographer because he didn’t talk to her while they were working.
Back to his roots
The advertising work brought Penn back to his roots. He’d begun his magazine work in 1938, orchestrating still lifes for Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. He left for a year, traveling to Mexico City, ostensibly to paint. He returned with no finished canvases and a suitcase full of photographs.
By 1943, he was at Vogue under the guidance of Alexander Liberman, who asked him to direct still lifes for other photographers.
The old guard did not appreciate a young upstart telling them how to compose a shot. In frustration, he complained to Liberman, who told him to just photograph them himself. So he did. World War II interrupted his fledgling photography career.
He enlisted and served as an ambulance driver in Italy during the war, and sent photographs of the effects of war back to the Vogue offices. When the war ended, he returned to Vogue and was hired as a staff photographer.
Early in his mentorship of Penn, Brodovitch had given him some sage advice: “Every image needs a bit of poison. … That bit of poison arrests attention.”
It is in Penn’s beauty photography that the bit of poison is most evident, nowhere as dramatically as the photo Bee, used to illustrate an article about the allure of voluptuous lips (often called bee-stung lips).
A large bumblebee looks to be crawling across the model’s mouth. Penn used chilled bees that didn't respond until they warmed up; he had about 10 minutes per bee to get the shot.
The result was definitely arresting — what the beauty editors called a “stopper.” It’s the sort of photo that makes a magazine reader stop to read an article as they flip through the magazine looking for the next pretty dress.
A beautiful print is a thing in itself, not just a halfway house on the way to the page.
Penn’s advertising photos are like that. They put a spin on traditional representations of common goods. A stack of frozen vegetables and fruits for Birds Eye, Frozen Foods, from 1977, is much more intriguing than the defrosted components could ever hope to be.
His work for Clinique, which began in 1968, was a huge departure. Most skin treatment advertising of the time focused on packaging and long explanatory text.
Penn photographed the new Clinique products as they might be seen in a laboratory, lined up on a glass shelf. It visually emphasized the science behind the product, and often the ads ran without any text other than what could be seen on the product labels.
In the 1970s, he began a series of platinum-palladium prints, the most expensive printing process of the time. His subjects were the refuse found on the streets of New York City. His assistants were sent out to scrounge likely candidates, and they returned with cigarette butts, squashed packaging and filthy gloves.
Penn photographed them lovingly, worked days on each laborious print and showed them at the Marlborough Gallery to a resounding outcry of horror. The ensuing arguments about appropriate subjects versus technical mastery were the kind of discourse the art world noticed.
“A beautiful print is a thing in itself, not just a halfway house on the way to the page,” Penn explained.
Soon these prints found their way into museum exhibitions and then the permanent collections of the same institutions.
Despite the subject matter, they are some of the most captivating images, with their own kind of beauty. They have a depth and richness of gray tones that do not translate into reproduction. The only way to appreciate them to is see them in person.
If seeing the tonal glory of an old battered work glove is not enticement enough to visit the DMA, the mid-century fashion photographs are there as well, and they are even more breathtaking now than they were on the pages of Vogue.
They are a reminder of a time when fashion was treated like an art form and not celebrity wrapping.
Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty
- Through Aug. 14
- Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St., Dallas
- 214-922-1200, www.dma.org