When we think about the golden age of fashion photography—the days when the person behind the camera was often just as influential and celebrated as the one posed in front of it—a few names immediately spring to mind: Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Arthur Elgort, Mario Testino, and, of course, Irving Penn.
For 66 years, Penn wielded his camera for Condé Nast, creating some of the most daring and iconic fashion images and celebrity portraits of the 20th century.
This work may have been commercial, but no one can dispute that it was also high art. “In time, to be photographed by Penn would itself be a gauge of one’s celebrity,” Juliet Hacking writes in Lives of the Great Photographers.
But while Penn’s best-known work may have ended up in the pages of Vogue, his career extended well beyond the glossies. For the first time in 20 years—and in the first show since his death in 2009 at the age of 92—a retrospective of over 140 of Irving Penn’s photographs are on view at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA).
Penn was born in 1917 and studied as a painter. But after graduation, he followed in the footsteps of one of his teachers and mentors, Alexey Brodovitch, and found work in the New York magazine world.
He got a job at the Junior League magazine, did freelance work for places like Harper’s Bazaar, and served a stint as art director for Saks Fifth Avenue.
After three years in New York City, Penn decided to take a break and travel through the American South, photographing the life he saw there, on his way to a rented art studio in Mexico City.
For a year, he painted and took photographs. But when the year came to an end, he scraped his canvases clean, returned to New York, and settled down for a long career as a photographer for Condé Nast.
Some of Penn’s classic fashion shots can be seen in the exhibition. But so too can selections from his early street photography and ethnographic explorations conducted during his travels.
And then there are the projects that are even further from his commercial work: the series of bleached out, Rubenesque bodies that are more about shape and lighting than the naked female form. And the gritty yet beautiful images of trash and cigarette butts recovered from New York’s streets.
In an audio introduction to the exhibition, curator Merry Foresta explains that in addition to his “familiar fashion, still life, and portrait images,” the show highlights “those images made in the first and last years of a long career that demonstrate the consistency of Penn’s work. Here is work scarcely known before. Early street photographs from Philadelphia, New York, the American South, Mexico, and World War II Europe that reveal Penn’s shrewd eye for unexpected details and juxtapositions.
“His ability to distill a subject, and locate compelling and creative details was well honed long before his first Paris fashion assignment.”
The show may be called Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, referring to the body of work outside of the supermodels in couture that the photographer is well known for. (Lisa Fonssagrives was a fashion model and frequent sitter for Penn, and the two fell in love and married in 1950.)
One of the overwhelming impressions stepping into the gallery space is that beauty is everywhere; Penn found it in everything he photographed—whether that was a Hell’s Angels member, trash picked up from the street, or the elegant ballooning of a Balenciaga sleeve.
He elevates ordinary people and objects to the same status as the impeccable fashions he photographed on impeccable models for Paris Fashion Week.
Take one early image, “Shop Sign: Shoe,” shot on the gritty streets of 1939 New York. Below signs for “Cigars” and “Telephone Booths” on a dark, narrow street hangs the outline of a shoe, presumably advertising the location of a cobbler.
It is a simple form, but there’s something about the dark shape against the natural light of the sky that makes it beautiful and perfect in this simplicity.
You can see Penn playing with lighting and framing in these early works in ways that would come to distinguish much of his popular commercial work.
His effort to see the beauty in nontraditional things reaches its apotheosis at the end of his career in a series of studies of New York street trash. He collected things like a grimy, flattened paper cup, a discarded pack of Camel cigarettes, and a mud-encrusted abandoned glove. Then he photographed them against a white background and printed them using the old-school, expensive platinum-palladium technique.
There is something about the resulting images that is just as elegant as the Dior Kerchief Glove he shot in Paris in 1950. It’s in the play of dark against light and the isolation and focus on these discarded and forgotten objects. They are quiet images, but still convey the vibrancy of the objects, whispers of the life they once had.
“What truly distinguishes his photography from that of his contemporaries’ is that his images did not, with a few notable exceptions, look to Europe for inspiration but attempted to forge an American aesthetic,” Hacking writes. “His concern with forging a significant style may have been in part a response to the indentured nature of the role: in return for the salary and use of the facilities, a Vogue photographer was always on call, and there was no right to refuse the work assigned.”
Penn was a perfectionist when it came to his work, but he also cherished the imperfections and truth in life beyond just what a gorgeous fashion photo or perfectly positioned still life could convey.
In his 1995 image, Bee, we get a close up of a yellow-and-black stinger straddling dangerously, thrillingly between the parted red lips of a model.
Or there’s his New York Still Life from 1947, which features a tableau in the Dutch tradition displaying remnants from a sumptuous dinner party—eggs and garlic bulbs, grapes overflowing an urn, a wine glass, and a rolled up table cloth. But among these delicacies, a small black beetle stands out, crawling up a white bag of grain.
“Throughout his career, Penn sought those things out of the ordinary: a shoe left aside, a piece of trash picked up in the street and treated to the elegance of studio light, a mannequin head frozen in a block of ice,” Foresta says. “Those things that capture both the intensity of Penn’s gaze and our attention.”