On view for the first time at the Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty exhibition held in the Smithsonian American Art Museum will be Super 8 mm films of Penn in Morocco, made by his wife and model Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, whose own image I have chosen to begin this post.
While Penn (1917-2009) is most known for his exclusive collaboration with Vogue, and for photographing celebrities, still life and fashion images, he was also widely travelled and took images in remote parts of the world. See below his Sitting Enga Woman, New Guinea, 1970.
Penn called his photographs ‘beatitudes’ and confessed, “I can get obsessed by anything if I look at it long enough. That’s the curse of being a photographer.” His trademark was for stark, striking simplicity. “Using simple equipment and daylight alone is for me a pleasure and a replenishment,” he has said. No doubt he would have railed against the latter day penchant for retouching and digitalisation of photography.
He called his camera, “part Stradivarius, part scalpel” and the exhibition is the first retrospective of Penn’s work in nearly 20 years. It includes 146 photographs from the museum’s permanent collection, including the debut of 100 photographs recently donated to the museum by The Irving Penn Foundation.
Fellow photographer Cecil Beaton remarked, in 1975, that Penn’s technique was highly unusual, “Penn makes everything extremely hard for himself. He employs no gadgets, no special props, nothing but the simplest lighting – probably a one-source light coming from the side of the sitter’s head.”
We can see this in his portrait of Beaton himself as well as that of writer Truman Capote, seen below.
Merry Foresta is the guest curator of the exhibition; she was the museum’s curator of photography from 1983 to 1999. Following its presentation in Washington, D.C., the exhibition will travel to several cities across the United States. Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty will be on view from Oct. 23 through March 20, 2015.www.si.edu
“I always felt we were selling dreams, not clothes,” said Penn. Here is Ball Dress by Olivier Theyskens for Nina Ricci, New York, 2007, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © Condé Nast
For reference; other captions for images shown
Beauty Shop, New York, 1949, printed 2001, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Promised gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation
Girl Behind Bottle (Jean Patchett), New York, 1949, printed 1978, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation Smithsonian American Art Foundation. Copyright © Condé Nast
Sitting Enga Woman, New Guinea, 1970, printed 1986, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation
Truman Capote, New York, 1979, printed 1983, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation
Woman in Moroccan Palace (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Marrakech, 1951, printed 1969, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist. Copyright © Condé Nast