New York, 1939
Gelatin silver print
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation
Irving Penn (1917-2009) is best known as a fashion photographer, but above all he was an artist. Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, describes him as the "quintessential Modernist photographer," among the first to apply an artistic sensibility to the craft. "He influenced a generation to see photography differently, to see it as a medium that had the capacity to be as strong and as iconic as the finest paintings," she says.
One hundred photographs by Irving Penn are on their way to the American Art Museum, thanks to a gift from the artist's foundation. The gift includes some of Penn's most iconic portraits as well as rare and unpublished street photography from the 1930s and 1940s, providing a full picture of the artist's career. The American Art Museum plans to mount a retrospective exhibition on Irving Penn in fall 2015.
From his subtle, exquisite portraits to his more provocative later work, Penn was a "master at controlling the image," says Broun. He worked with equal facility in both the fine art and commercial realms. During his 66-year tenure at Vogue, Penn photographed some of the world's most famous fashion models. In advertisements as well as in his independent work, he imbued banal or outre subjects with artistry and sophistication. Through his photography, Broun says, "you began to find your mind playing games, questioning what makes something elegant fashion. He was really interested in the way people self-present, they way they dress and decorate themselves."
The following slideshow offers a chronological glimpse of Penn's career. The street photograph above casts a beguiling look into a New York City beauty shop window. "[Penn] was very interested in looking at the artifice, the artificial reality, that was created in store windows," says Broun. "Even as early as 1939, he shows this aptitude for penetrating the mysteries and the secrets of how fashion and advertising and glamour are presented to the public. It sets the stage for what came later."
Image courtesy of American Art Museum