Washington, DC

Irving Penn, Sitting Enga Woman, 1970, platinum-palladium print, 19 5/8 × 19 3/8".

Irving Penn, Sitting Enga Woman, 1970, platinum-palladium print, 19 5/8 × 19 3/8".

Irving Penn

Irving Penn, Sitting Enga Woman, 1970, platinum-palladium print, 19 5/8 × 19 3/8".

Over the course of seven decades, Irving Penn did much to dismantle what was once thought to be a rigid barricade between fine-art and commercial photography, setting a precedent of mobility among diverse photographic contexts. Along with his colleague Richard Avedon, Penn elevated fashion photography to the highest levels of aesthetic ambition and refinement (though his work has seemed, at times and to a newer generation, as the embodiment of the historical canon). His eye was promiscuous and restless. Although his sensibility was rooted in the still life, his work straddled many photographic genres—portraiture, street photography, fashion, and advertising—and by rejecting the protocols of photographic typologies, he created original hybrids and fusions within a still-segregated medium. That this body of work, patronized by the brilliant art director Alexander Liberman, would take shape within the pages of Vogue, a mass-market fashion publication, made it all the more remarkable.

“Beyond Beauty,” organized by guest curator Merry Foresta, provided a graceful overview of Penn’s protean career. The exhibition’s offerings were culled from the museum’s permanent collection, recently bolstered by a donation of one hundred works from the Irving Penn Foundation. Consisting of 146 prints that spanned the range of Penn’s durable career, “Beyond Beauty” proposed some canny relationships between diversely motivated images, and effectively chronicled an aesthetic inquiry that permitted itself a broad range of manifestations characterized by a mood of contemplative elegance and formal invention.

One of the exhibition’s revelations was an ample selection of Penn’s lesser-known early street photography realized between 1937 and 1946. Made on excursions through the American South and war-ravaged Europe, these images disclosed the unexpected origins of Penn’s vision. His interest in the vernacular of silhouetted objects (rooted in a preliterate culture) and shadow was likewise evident in the photographer’s later use of shape and form as descriptive tools. These early pictures also evidence influences as diverse as Surrealist photography and the work of fin-de-siècle photographer Eugène Atget, as well as Penn’s early affection for the random jumble of worn remnants. The main-street shop and its incongruous window-display tableaux, so central to these images, would inform his commercial work, with its emphasis on the still life, throughout his professional career.

Penn subverted, consistently and meticulously, the conventions of commercial photography. His iconic portraits of cultural figures—writers, filmmakers, artists, designers—articulated their fragility, vulnerability, and scars, and his subjects were often depicted engulfed within the rumpled black shapes of their clothing. His photographs were a celebration of the world as it is. Rather than a generic block of homogenized cheddar (such as might be found in an American supermarket), Penn’s iconic picture Ripe Cheese, 1992, presents a rustic wheel of oozing Brie—an activated, rather than “still,” subject.” In Penn’s thinking, fashion was not solely a preserve of the moneyed class, but was recognized as both a tribal and quotidian fact.

“Beyond Beauty” presents a photographer making a persuasive case for a redefining of beauty beyond the narrow limitations of his day, advocating for a beauty that might also be located in age and decay, in the ragged and rumpled, and thus anticipating many of the sweeping cultural changes in the latter half of the past century. That Penn’s radical program would be concealed in images of such elegance and formal intelligence is part of the photographer’s enduring accomplishment.

Stephen Frailey