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The late photographer Irving Penn came from a talented family. His younger brother Arthur was an A-list Hollywood director. But Irving Penn found his art in still life, photographing beautiful bodies in designer clothes for Vogue. Some of those fashion photos are on view at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum. And NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to take a look.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Well, they're so perfect, so posed and glossy and perfect. As a chubby Manhattan kid in the 1950s, I thought I was supposed to look like that, the pinched waists, the impersonal expressions. But I knew I never could, and anyway, who'd want to?
BETSY BROUN: I grew up in a small town in Kansas.
STAMBERG: Betsy Broun, director of the American Art Museum.
BROUN: It never even dawned on me that those women lived on my planet.
MERRY FORESTA: I think Penn was, at heart, not trying to make us chubby girls feel bad.
STAMBERG: Curator Merry Foresta says he had a different goal.
FORESTA: To use the models as the very best vehicle for showing the fashion.
STAMBERG: 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.
FORESTA: These were pictures that were done after hours, on weekends...
STAMBERG: To keep himself balanced, she thinks. The nudes look like line drawings Rodin might've made before he hauled out the marble - extreme close-ups of body parts stomach and crotch creases. Colleagues discouraged him from pursuing this - no future in it.
FORESTA: Penn put them away. He put them in a box. They were not shown again until 1980.
STAMBERG: Why? By prim 1950s standards, they were seen as porno.
FORESTA: They couldn't be sent anywhere in the mails. 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.
STAMBERG: So skinny models, not fleshy nudes, plus portraits - Truman Capote, Salvador Dali and street trash? Cigarette butts that he spots in the gutters?
FORESTA: He brings them back to his studio, lights them as if they were an exquisite piece of Baccarat crystal.
STAMBERG: So they become perfect, too - street trash.
FORESTA: I think, above all, Penn was a photographer with an artist's eye.
STAMBERG: An eye that measured, adjusted, posed, perfected. Can a camera lens be cold?
FORESTA: 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. And I think those are all good things to think about when you're thinking about a work of art.
STAMBERG: "Beyond Beauty," 146 photos by Irving Penn, at the American Art Museum till March. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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