Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty

Irving Penn

Irving Penn, "Nude No. 58," New York, about 1949–1950, printed 1976, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation.

Ode to a Modern Master’s Legacy

by Franklin W. Liu

It’s been said that photography walks alone. As a 20th Century fine art medium, it opens our eyes to the world around us, near and far, challenging us to think and inducing us to feel what is conveyed through a singular, compelling moment captured through a discerning eye with the click of a shutter.

“Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty” is a major retrospective exhibition presenting 146 striking, stark photographic images made with passion by photographer-artist extraordinaire, Irving Penn (1917-2009). This nationwide traveling tribute was assiduously culled from the prestigious Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection by distinguished guest-curator Merry A. Foresta, who served as the Smithsonian’s curator of photography from 1982 through 2000, when she became the director of the Smithsonian’s Photography Initiative.

Foresta wants gallery goers to appreciate that Irving Penn’s camera lens enticingly coaxed a vast range of subjects, from fashion models to celebrities to everyday people, from local neighborhoods to exotic cultures in remote locales around the world. Penn was equally drawn to expressing the simplistic beauty of still life, esthetically arranged and articulated through sensitive accent lighting. Similarly, once out of the photography studio, Penn’s raw imagination took aim at variegated, poignant street scenes, as if there weren’t a precious moment to squander. All of these images were made throughout a long, vibrant career, lasting nearly 70 years in the forefront of commercial and fine art photography.

From an early series of black and white images of urban storefronts and street scenes, one 1939 image, “Beauty Shop,” New York, shows Penn leading viewers to peer through a store window; sitting on a display pedestal is the bust of a nubile young woman. This yesteryear mannequin seems to come alive, averting her gaze, her head turned shyly to one side with a coy smile. Her exposed soft shoulders glow, enhanced by a flattering, simple, black spaghetti-strap dress, as she is seen placing her right palm into her left palm in a gesture of flirtatious anticipation.

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