How Irving Penn Turned Fashion Photography Into a Fine Art

A new show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum looks back at a photo giant who blurred the lines

Self-portrait Irving Penn: In a Cracked Mirror (A), New York, 1986; printed 1990. © The Irving Penn Foundation
Kerchief Glove (Dior), Paris, 1950; printed 1984. © The Irving Penn Foundation
Ball Dress, Olivier Theyskens for Nina Ricci, New York, 2007. © The Irving Penn Foundation
Salvador Dali, New York, 1947. © The Irving Penn Foundation
Girl Behind Bottle (Jean Patchett), New York, 1949; printed 1978. © The Irving Penn Foundation
Mud Glove, New York, 1975; printed 1976. © The Irving Penn Foundation
Frozen Foods, New York, 1977; printed 1984. © The Irving Penn Foundation
Sitting Enga Woman, New Guinea, 1970; printed 1986. © The Irving Penn Foundation
Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986; printed 1992. © The Irving Penn Foundation

Sexy lips are an advertising cliché—one that Irving Penn cheerfully upended in this 1986 photo, Mouth (for L’Oréal). Smeared with more than a half-dozen shades of lipstick, in the manner of a painter’s palette, the model’s pout seems to mock the facade of perfect beauty. Like any good ad, the image seizes the viewer’s attention, but it’s more than just eye candy, says Merry Foresta, curator of a Penn retrospective—the first in 20 years—opening this month at the Smithsonian American Art Museum: “Though made to sell a product, it crosses the divide between commerce and art with astounding ease.” The artist, who died in 2009 at age 92, produced still lifes of cigarette butts and skulls as well as portraits of couture-clad models, but his defining talent for elevating fashion photography into the lordly realm of fine art is what keeps his work perpetually in style.

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty

Drawing from the extensive holdings of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, including a major gift from The Irving Penn Foundation, this magnificent catalogue compiles 161 of Penn’s iconic images, including a number of unpublished works.