Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty
Irving Penn (1917-2009) is one of the best-known American photographers of the second half of the twentieth century. In a career that spanned almost seventy years, Irving Penn worked on professional and artistic projects across multiple genres. He was a master of both black-and-white and color photography, and he was key to the revival of platinum printing in the 1960s and 1970s. He published more than nine books of his photographs and two of his drawings during his lifetime. Penn was one of the first photographers to cross the chasm that separated magazine and art photography, narrowing the gap between art and fashion at the same time. His pictures reveal a taste for stark simplicity whether he was photographing celebrity portraits, fashion, still-lifes, or remote places of the world.
This exhibition, the first retrospective of Penn’s work in almost twenty years, will demonstrate his legacy as a modern master and place Penn in the context of the contemporary moment. It will include approximately 140 photographs from the museum’s permanent collection, and will debut 100 photographs recently donated by The Irving Penn Foundation.
Iconic images are highlighted, as well as previously unseen or never exhibited photographs. The exhibition is framed by his earliest work—street scenes from the late 1930s and photographs of the American South made during a road trip from New York to Mexico in 1941-42—and his late experimental images, many of them self-portraits. On display will be notable photographs by Penn for Vogue magazine; portraits of the great, the celebrated, and the anonymous; photographs of elegant women in New York; Parisian fashions; and celebrations of men, women, and children in villages and jungles on five continents. Included too are his more private preoccupations that extended throughout his career—studio images of street refuse, animal skulls, the female nude, and memento mori.
The exhibition is organized by Merry Foresta, guest curator and independent consultant for the arts. Foresta was the museum’s curator of photography from 1983 to 1999. A book, co-published by The Irving Penn Foundation and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, will accompany the exhibition and will include an essay by Foresta. After its display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the exhibition will travel to museums throughout the United States.