a
Arts

The Man Who Made Ugly Things Beautiful

New Irving Penn Retrospective Shames the iPhone Photo “Masters”

BY // 04.05.16

HE FAMOUSLY PHOTOGRAPHED MODELS FOR VOGUE, MADE PORTRAITS OF LEGENDS MIRÓ AND CAPOTE, AND CREATED STILL LIFE IMAGES OF BONES ONCE BURIED BY HIS DOG IN THE BACKYARD. THIS MONTH, THE WILD WORLD OF IRVING PENN TRAVELS FROM THE SMITHSONIAN AND COMES TO LIFE AT THE DALLAS MUSEUM OF ART WITH THE FIRST MAJOR RETROSPECTIVE OF THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S WORK IN 20 YEARS.

There could be no more relevant time for the Dallas Museum of Art to present a major retrospective of the work of the late photographer Irving Penn (1917 –  2009) than now. This is the age of Instagram, and anyone with an iPhone thinks himself a photographer with the tap of button and the application of a filter. But simply pointing, clicking and selecting Ludwig or Lo-Fi does not a photographer make.

This perception is what makes “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty,” organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a pivotal moment that should further develop an appreciation for photography as art.

“There is something that people have lost now because we are in this instant-photographic moment,” says Olivier Meslay, the DMA’s associate director of curatorial affairs. “People think photography is looking at things and taking a photo of it — that is not it. It’s like a painter or a sculptor.

“That is Irving Penn. He is not photographing a world that already exists; he is creating a world and photographing it.”

Penn’s realm comes to life via more than 140 photographs, many of which have never been exhibited, ranging from his commercial and fashion images to portraits and still lifes. When you see the diverse array of works together, the artist’s influence and impact on 20th-century photography becomes clear. A portrait of couturier Charles James from 1948 presents an interesting juxtaposition when seen next to an image he made of a gypsy family from Extremadura, Spain, in 1968.

A fashion photograph of a model wearing a Nina Ricci ball gown, circa 2007, takes on new life when viewed in the same context as a still life of frozen fruits and vegetables made in 1977.

Screen shot 2016-04-04 at 1.22.08 PM

“It is about pushing beyond what we think of the concept of beauty and fashion,” says Sue Canterbury, the Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art and the exhibition’s presenting curator. “For Penn, the challenge was to take the things that some of us wouldn’t consider beautiful and to make an interesting or beautiful object out of it in the picture itself.”

This notion is perhaps best realized in a series of images of pieces of trash photographed in the ’70s. Penn would send his assistants to pick things off the street and bring them back for him to photograph. After one trash-hunting excursion, an assistant brought back items he thought were interesting to look at on their own. Penn objected, saying he didn’t want things that were interesting, but wanted items he could make interesting.

“It’s a slight twist of perspective,” Canterbury says. “Penn was looking for the most common, most mundane, most ugly things, and his desire was to make them beautiful through the way they were photographed.”

It’s fascinating that although Penn was famous for photographing beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes for Vogue, his obsessive pursuit of perfecting his craft led him to make some of the ugliest items (cigarette butts, a tattered mud-covered glove) picturesque. In that sense, says Canterbury, “Irving Penn was a photographer’s photographer.”

While this holds true for the iconic fashion images he made and the ad campaigns he created for clients such as Clinique, it’s equally relevant to the work he made in his private time. “It’s the things he did on the side — the things he did on the weekends and in the evening — that were his own work,” Sullivan says. And that work certainly didn’t involve a filter-of-the-moment or a hashtag.

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, April 15 – August 14, at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St., 214.922.1200. Exhibition catalog $45, through the DMA Store.

Featured Properties

X