For Irving Penn, Perfect Portraiture Wasn't Just For Fashion Models
Betsy Broun, director of the American Art Museum, grew up in a small town in Kansas. When she saw the photographs of women in Vogue -- with their pinched waists and impersonal expressions — "it never even dawned on me that those women lived on my planet," she says.
Irving Penn took those posed, perfect, glossy images — some of which are now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Broun says that, at heart, she doesn't think Penn was "trying to make us chubby girls feel bad." Rather, as curator Merry Foresta puts it, Penn saw the models as the "very best vehicle for showing the fashion."
At the same time he was photographing those skinnies with Diors and martinis and cigarettes, Foresta says Penn was taking pictures of zaftig women, wearing nothing at all.
"These were pictures that were done after hours, on weekends," Foresta explains.
It was to keep him balanced, she thinks. The nudes look like line drawings Rodin might have made, before he hauled out the marble. Extreme close-ups of body parts — stomach and crotch creases. Colleagues discouraged him from pursuing this. There was no future in it. So he put them away.
"He put them in a box. They were not shown again until 1980," Foresta says.
Why? Well, by prim 1950s standards, they were seen as pornographic.
"They couldn't be sent anywhere in the mail," says Foresta. "It was against the law to send these. No one was really going to be interested in seeing these in the pages of a magazine.
Galleries wouldn't show them and no one was interested in buying them.
So he focused on skinny models — not fleshy nudes — and did portraits of Truman Capote, Salvador Dali and, unexpectedly — even street trash.
He would spot cigarette butts in the gutter and bring them back to his studio. Then, he'd light them like "an exquisite piece of Baccarat crystal," Foresta says.
Suddenly the street trash is perfect, too.
"I think above all Penn was a photographer with an artist's eye," says Foresta.
It was an eye that measured, adjusted, posed and perfected. Could it be perceived as cold? Foresta doesn't think so:
"If we mistake it for coldness I think we might underestimate the power of these kinds of images to hold our attention and make us think a little bit about beauty and mortality and the human race in general," she says. "And I think those are all good things to think about when you're thinking about a work of art.
Beyond Beauty, featuring 146 of Penn's photographs, is at the American Art Museum until March.
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