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For Irving Penn, Perfect Portraiture Wasn't Just For Fashion Models
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For Irving Penn, Perfect Portraiture Wasn't Just For Fashion Models

Photography

For Irving Penn, Perfect Portraiture Wasn't Just For Fashion Models

For Irving Penn, Perfect Portraiture Wasn't Just For Fashion Models
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/452855511/455432761" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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During his decades-spanning career Irving Penn photographed everything from fashion models to frozen food. Above, Ball Dress by Olivier Theyskens for Nina Ricci, New York, 2007. i

During his decades-spanning career Irving Penn photographed everything from fashion models to frozen food. Above, Ball Dress by Olivier Theyskens for Nina Ricci, New York, 2007. Conde Nast/Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation hide caption

toggle caption Conde Nast/Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation
During his decades-spanning career Irving Penn photographed everything from fashion models to frozen food. Above, Ball Dress by Olivier Theyskens for Nina Ricci, New York, 2007.

During his decades-spanning career Irving Penn photographed everything from fashion models to frozen food. Above, Ball Dress by Olivier Theyskens for Nina Ricci, New York, 2007.

Conde Nast/Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation

Betsy Broun, director of the American Art Museum, grew up in a small town in Kansas. When she saw the photographs of women in Vogue — with their pinched waists and impersonal expressions — "it never even dawned on me that those women lived on my planet," she says.

Around the same time he was working for Vogue, Penn spent nights and weekends working on nudes, which were considered pornographic by '50s standards. (Above) Nude No. 58, New York, circa 1950, printed 1976. i

Around the same time he was working for Vogue, Penn spent nights and weekends working on nudes, which were considered pornographic by '50s standards. (Above) Nude No. 58, New York, circa 1950, printed 1976. The Irving Penn Foundation/Smithsonian American Art Museum hide caption

toggle caption The Irving Penn Foundation/Smithsonian American Art Museum
Around the same time he was working for Vogue, Penn spent nights and weekends working on nudes, which were considered pornographic by '50s standards. (Above) Nude No. 58, New York, circa 1950, printed 1976.

Around the same time he was working for Vogue, Penn spent nights and weekends working on nudes, which were considered pornographic by '50s standards. (Above) Nude No. 58, New York, circa 1950, printed 1976.

The Irving Penn Foundation/Smithsonian American Art Museum

Irving Penn took those posed, perfect, glossy images — some of which are now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Broun says that, at heart, she doesn't think Penn was "trying to make us chubby girls feel bad." Rather, as curator Merry Foresta puts it, Penn saw the models as the "very best vehicle for showing the fashion."

At the same time he was photographing those skinnies with Diors and martinis and cigarettes, Foresta says Penn was taking pictures of zaftig women, wearing nothing at all.

"These were pictures that were done after hours, on weekends," Foresta explains.

It was to keep him balanced, she thinks. The nudes look like line drawings Rodin might have made, before he hauled out the marble. Extreme close-ups of body parts — stomach and crotch creases. Colleagues discouraged him from pursuing this. There was no future in it. So he put them away.

Penn made portraits of celebrities such as Truman Capote, Leontyne Price and Salvador Dali (above) in 1947. i

Penn made portraits of celebrities such as Truman Capote, Leontyne Price and Salvador Dali (above) in 1947. The Irving Penn Foundation/Smithsonian American Art Museum hide caption

toggle caption The Irving Penn Foundation/Smithsonian American Art Museum
Penn made portraits of celebrities such as Truman Capote, Leontyne Price and Salvador Dali (above) in 1947.

Penn made portraits of celebrities such as Truman Capote, Leontyne Price and Salvador Dali (above) in 1947.

The Irving Penn Foundation/Smithsonian American Art Museum

"He put them in a box. They were not shown again until 1980," Foresta says.

Why? Well, by prim 1950s standards, they were seen as pornographic.

"They couldn't be sent anywhere in the mail," says Foresta. "It was against the law to send these. No one was really going to be interested in seeing these in the pages of a magazine.

Galleries wouldn't show them and no one was interested in buying them.

So he focused on skinny models — not fleshy nudes — and did portraits of Truman Capote, Salvador Dali and, unexpectedly — even street trash.

He would spot cigarette butts in the gutter and bring them back to his studio. Then, he'd light them like "an exquisite piece of Baccarat crystal," Foresta says.

Penn also focused his lens on everyday objects: a cigarette butt, a bedside lamp or, in the case of the 1977 work above, frozen foods. i

Penn also focused his lens on everyday objects: a cigarette butt, a bedside lamp or, in the case of the 1977 work above, frozen foods. The Irving Penn Foundation/Smithsonian American Art Museum hide caption

toggle caption The Irving Penn Foundation/Smithsonian American Art Museum
Penn also focused his lens on everyday objects: a cigarette butt, a bedside lamp or, in the case of the 1977 work above, frozen foods.

Penn also focused his lens on everyday objects: a cigarette butt, a bedside lamp or, in the case of the 1977 work above, frozen foods.

The Irving Penn Foundation/Smithsonian American Art Museum

Suddenly the street trash is perfect, too.

"I think above all Penn was a photographer with an artist's eye," says Foresta.

It was an eye that measured, adjusted, posed and perfected. Could it be perceived as cold? Foresta doesn't think so:

"If we mistake it for coldness I think we might underestimate the power of these kinds of images to hold our attention and make us think a little bit about beauty and mortality and the human race in general," she says. "And I think those are all good things to think about when you're thinking about a work of art.

Beyond Beauty, featuring 146 of Penn's photographs, is at the American Art Museum until March.

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