To many, Irving Penn is known as the man behind the lens of several iconic fashion images – from the 1950 photo of his wife, model Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn in a Rochas Mermaid gown, to the 1995 photo of a bee sitting atop a pair of rosy – (almost) literally bee-stung – lips. But Penn also had a creative side away from fashion, capturing urban social snapshots in the United States and tribal women in Africa. Now, for the first time, many of his unseen works are on display at the Dallas Museum of Art in ‘Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty’, the first comprehensive retrospective of his work in two decades.
‘He saw beauty as an absolute value,’ says Sue Canterbury, the Pauline Gill Sullivan associate curator of American art at the Museum. ‘You see this thread running throughout his work, whether it’s a fashion model in Paris, or a biker in San Francisco with Hell’s Angels, or the people he shot in his travels in Peru, New Guinea, or Morocco.’
The exhibition, which features around 140 photographs, takes viewers through what Penn saw from behind his lens, from early street scenes of Philadelphia and New York in the late 1930s, to his images of the residents of Cusco, Peru in the 40s and native Dahomey girls in the late 60s. Also included are famous portraits of artists and intellectuals like Salvador Dalí and Langston Hughes, and Penn's surveys of the post-Second World War European working class.
As the show leads on to his fashion work, Penn’s gift for fashion photography becomes evident in the way the silhouettes of the clothes become sleek sculptures. ‘Before he stepped in, fashion shoots were situational,’ says Canterbury. ‘You created a tableau vivant. He changed it by creating these wonderful plain backgrounds. The result is that there is no distraction from the clothes.’
Penn was a master of composition, darkroom developing and still life, and had an eye for making anything beautiful – even the flattened street trash he photographed in platinum in the 1970s. He saw beauty in everything, even boxes of frozen produce (photographed in 1977). ‘It was very innovative, the way that he [thought], and also the way that he saw things could be shot,’ concludes Canterbury.