Iconic Photography by the Legendary Irving Penn Comes to the American Art Museum | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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The street photograph above casts a beguiling look into a New York City beauty shop window. Image courtesy of American Art Museum (New York, 1939. Gelatin silver print. Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation)
Part of a series of shop sign photographs, Shop Sign: Shoe (Version A), New York demonstrates Penn's surrealist eye for the "discovered fun in our visual landscape. . . the slightly disjunctive element that we come to accept as a matter of course," says Broun. "He was very alert to how the world was constructed around him and how we navigate through it."

Image courtesy of American Art Museum (New York, 1939
Gelatin silver print
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation)
Penn took this photograph on his first fashion assignment in Paris. "He nails it on the first time out," says Broun. "Elegant silhouette, very reductive surroundings, very classic, iconic image that emblemizes fashion and style. This is just center of the note for Irving Penn."

Image courtesy of American Art Museum (Paris, 1950
Gelatin silver print
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation)
Penn shot Cracked Egg for a Condé Nast advertisement, but the egg, Broun says, "might as well be a fashion model" for its beautiful presentation. "In so much of his work, there's a little note of loss or melancholy or damage. He rarely wants you to feel completely rewarded."

Image courtesy of American Art Museum (1958
Chromogenic print
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation)
Twisted Paper pushes the boundaries of what can be classified as art. "You’re reading [the paper] like a figure, even though it’s just trash," says Broun. "But he’s presenting it, isolating it against a background, giving it a kind of iconic stance within the frame of the photo. . . focusing the attention that you would give to an artwork on a piece of cast-off paper. . . . He’s making an artwork out of really nothing."

Image courtesy of American Art Museum (1975
Platinum print
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation)
This photograph, one of several Penn took of Truman Capote, captures the writer's intellect and self-conscious celebrity. "[Penn] was revered as a photographer because he could capture the characteristic aspect of a person," Broun says.

Image courtesy of American Art Museum (New York, 1979
Gelatin silver print
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation)
Mouth is characteristic of Penn's later work, which Broun describes as increasingly insistent, transgressive, even violent. "However dazzling and fun and joyful the color [of the lipsticks], there’s a kind of slashing approach to the way they’re applied," says Broun.

Image courtesy of American Art Museum (New York, 1986
Dye transfer print
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation)
Underfoot, like Twisted Paper, suggests that art can be found anywhere. Broun explains: "[Penn] would wander around the streets. He would find cast-off gloves, cigarette butts, elements from which he could make a very elegant, beautiful surface—a formal composition."

Image courtesy of American Art Museum (New York, 2000
Gelatin silver print
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation)
"You have to ask if it’s a form of portraiture," Broun says of this striking image of a rooster. "It’s a headshot of a thing that is decoratively arrayed."

Image courtesy of American Art Museum (New York, 2003
Inkjet print
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation)

Iconic Photography by the Legendary Irving Penn Comes to the American Art Museum

The Modernist photographer pushed the boundaries of art and fashion

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."
 

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