This AM as you wake up, you may feel the Washington air feel a little more beautiful and, yes, beautifully weird too. That change you sense is that as of today D.C. is richer for one truly can’t miss photography show. Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Irving Penn Beyond Beauty is the first major museum retrospective since the artist’s death, and in fact, the first major retrospective of his work in twenty years. This evening, we are helping the museum celebrate its opening with a wonderful after-hours (in continuation of their Irving Penn at The Intersection of Art, Fashion and Photography programming during the day) but we thought that a sneak peek at what awaits you at the exhibition.
Beyond Beauty features a true intersection of Penn’s work starting with his the street scenes from the late 1930s, through celebrity portraits, his iconic fashion shots, the fabulously technical and almost surreal still lifes, and even some of the never-before-seen photographs, including a 8mm films of Penn in Morocco, made by his wife Lia Fonssagrives-Penn, offering a truly unique view of both the artist’s work and the artist at work.
We sat down with the guest curator for the show, Merry Foresta (and the author of the exhibition’s catalog, which we highly recommend as THE gift for your fashion and photography loving loved ones this holiday season), to dig in a little deeper.
BYT: Tell us how you first encountered Irving Penn’s work? What were your initial impressions/thoughts?
Merry Foresta: I worked on the first Penn exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1990. It consisted of 60 original prints that Penn donated to the museum, and I met him at that time. He was charming and an exacting workman who lived up to high standards and expected them of others, and I great admired him.
BYT: And how did the decision to focus on him professionally come about? Was there a clear moment you remember?
MF: I found the work impeccable and interesting. That he could be both an admired artist and a revered magazine photographer made him a fascinating subject, at least equal to the great Surrealist Man Ray, on whose work I had focused in the 1980s.
BYT: What was the process of bringing this show to American Art Museum?
MF: I worked closely with the Irving Penn Foundation, which opened its archive and allowed me to browse through everything Penn ever made, including seldom-seen or never-seen early photographs, other versions of well-known images, work published in Vogue that hadn’t been seen since the 1940s and 50s, and the full scope of his late work from the years before his death in 2009.
BYT: The show features some never before seen work as well – can you tell us how those were chosen, and why were they unseen as of 2015?
BYT: In many cases Penn had moved on to new work and never got around to reassessing what he had done earlier in his career; only in the last 10 years of his life did he look back at his entire archive and select images that were timeless and important. I tried to respect Penn’s view of what was important in his career but at the same time not be slavish to it, so some of the work in the show might surprise Penn himself.
BYT: What do you think is Penn’s greatest legacy when we look at the influence he had on photography today?
MF: Penn’s influence was profound in fashion photography inasmuch as he (along with Richard Avedon) helped the public realize that it could be art. But he also influenced the way we think about art, that is, not so much as a rareified, isolated activity but one that intersects and influences all aspects of contemporary culture.
BYT: For a Penn novice – why is this exhibition important?
MF: Because they’ll discover one of the great photographers of the 20th century, and recognize how photography creates memorable icons of specific historical moments.
BYT: For a Penn aficionado – what are some new things they may discover? What were some of the new things YOU learned?
MF: Penn is endlessly fascinating, and putting the less-well known work in the context of his famous classics was both a challenge and a joy.
BYT: What are some of the things about Penn that would surprise our readers?
MF: Probably that Penn did so much more than fashion, even when on the staff of Vogue.
BYT: I imagine it is hard to make this choice, but are there any images in the exhibition you, in particular, respond to? Some favorites?
MF: I love them all, but I’m especially taken by images that blur the distinction between beautiful and repulsive, like the model’s head in ice, or chewing gum on the street in the “Underfoot” series. Even the early work is sometimes perverse, like the portrait of Agnes deMille in which the dancer looks like she only has one leg. On the other hand, I love his pictures of his wife, the model Lisa Fonsagreves, which are simply exquisite.
BYT: Penn walked the line between editorial, fine art and commercial photography probably like no one else before him. Are there current photographers you’d compare him to and why?
MF: Today it’s no novelty to be working simultaneously as an artist and as a magazine or advertising photographer. Obvious comparisons are people like Annie Leibovitz, Wolfgang Tilmans, and Bruce Weber, but the ticket can be punched on both ends: both Tina Barney and Phillip Lorca diCorcia, for example, do fashion magazine assignments as a sideline to their artwork. Penn could be said to have opened up the space that made this all possible.
BYT: Any final thoughts?
MF: Come see the show!
We can’t wait.
Irving Penn Beyond Beauty is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through March 20 2016. Please go see it and join us for the opening celebration after-hours tonight. The exhibition is also part of this year’s FotoWeekDC, and photographer Dan Winters will be doing a talk on November 10th in conjunction with the festival.
Exhibition Photos by: Jeff Martin
Feature header image:Irving Penn, Bee, New York, 1995, printed 2001, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Promised gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation
Feature image: Irving Penn, Ball Dress by Olivier Theyskens for Nina Ricci, New York, 2007, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © Condé Nast