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For Irving Penn, Perfect Portraiture Wasn't Just For Fashion Models

Nov 10, 2015
Originally published on November 10, 2015 1:37 pm

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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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The late photographer Irving Penn came from a talented family. His younger brother Arthur was an A-list Hollywood director. But Irving Penn found his art in still life, photographing beautiful bodies in designer clothes for Vogue. Some of those fashion photos are on view at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum. And NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to take a look.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Well, they're so perfect, so posed and glossy and perfect. As a chubby Manhattan kid in the 1950s, I thought I was supposed to look like that, the pinched waists, the impersonal expressions. But I knew I never could, and anyway, who'd want to?

BETSY BROUN: I grew up in a small town in Kansas.

STAMBERG: Betsy Broun, director of the American Art Museum.

BROUN: It never even dawned on me that those women lived on my planet.

MERRY FORESTA: I think Penn was, at heart, not trying to make us chubby girls feel bad.

STAMBERG: Curator Merry Foresta says he had a different goal.

FORESTA: To use the models as the very best vehicle for showing the fashion.

STAMBERG: 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.

FORESTA: These were pictures that were done after hours, on weekends...

STAMBERG: To keep himself balanced, she thinks. The nudes look like line drawings Rodin might've made before he hauled out the marble - extreme close-ups of body parts stomach and crotch creases. Colleagues discouraged him from pursuing this - no future in it.

FORESTA: Penn put them away. He put them in a box. They were not shown again until 1980.

STAMBERG: Why? By prim 1950s standards, they were seen as porno.

FORESTA: They couldn't be sent anywhere in the mails. 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.

STAMBERG: So skinny models, not fleshy nudes, plus portraits - Truman Capote, Salvador Dali and street trash? Cigarette butts that he spots in the gutters?

FORESTA: He brings them back to his studio, lights them as if they were an exquisite piece of Baccarat crystal.

STAMBERG: So they become perfect, too - street trash.

FORESTA: I think, above all, Penn was a photographer with an artist's eye.

STAMBERG: An eye that measured, adjusted, posed, perfected. Can a camera lens be cold?

FORESTA: 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. And I think those are all good things to think about when you're thinking about a work of art.

STAMBERG: "Beyond Beauty," 146 photos by Irving Penn, at the American Art Museum till March. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.