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Though he’s best known for his mid-century fashion photographs in Vogue and other glossy magazines, “Beyond Beauty”—the new Irving Penn retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum—ventures well beyond his fashion work. Unlike his fashion photography, however, the payoffs from Penn’s artistic wanderings prove to be uneven.
The earliest works by Penn (1917-2009) are urban documentary photographs that bear a notable debt to the Parisian photographer Eugene Atget, an idol of Penn’s. Some of these images show early promise—such as a shadow cast on a sidewalk by a shop sign in the shape of a key and a gun—but given his future career path, the young photographer’s images show more signs and other inanimate objects than of people.
When Penn became a magazine photographer, he was sometimes drawn to gimmicks. Some underwhelm, such as making his subjects stand within a claustrophobic, V-shaped space, an approach that comes off as too calculated. (Salvador Dali manspreading in this wedge is shown below.) On the other hand, harnessing early color techniques from the 1940s paid greater dividends, especially with food photography, such as his inviting image of a bowl of bouillabaisse.
On the whole, Penn’s portraits aren’t his most interesting work, though there are some exceptions. In his image of Henry Moore, the sculptor’s face is half-hidden by a sunburst from behind; Miles Davis is portrayed as a matrix of 12 images of the jazzman’s hand holding his trumpet; and a Hell’s Angel biker is portrayed exactly as Penn described, as a “coiled spring ready to fly loose.”
Despite his day job as a fashion photographer, some of Penn’s finest work involved still lifes, some as humble as a pair of water glasses or monumental close-ups of cigarette butts. The exhibit nicely pairs an image of a twisted, discarded piece of paper with another of a frilly ball gown; the two share a surprising textural resonance. In one particularly inventive tableau (second from top), Penn stacked several polygonal, multi-colored slabs of straight-from-the-box frozen vegetables on top of each other, producing a worthy monument to the century’s march of food technology.
The thorniest images in the exhibit are those in which Penn traveled the world with a canvas-tent backdrop to document far-flung cultures. Some of this work is striking and weighty, such as images of almost fully covered women in Morocco. Other images, though, seem exploitative, such as those of peasants in Peru and Africa. One particular offender is the 1969 image of a bare-breasted Cameroonian subject labeled in the caption as a “nubile young beauty.” One can respect Penn’s desire to create a body of work more diverse than his workaday grist for the fashion mags, but that doesn’t mean this part of his oeuvre stands the test of time.
Through March 20 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F St. NW, Washington, D.C. 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. daily.