Exhibit | Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty

Irving Penn, Bee, New York, 1995, printed 2001, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Promised gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation

Known the world over for his fashion, portrait, and still life photography in Vogue throughout the twentieth century, Irving Penn was an American modernist who elevated commercial photography to art itself. 

Yet, a true artist is always more than their paid work; deep within the vast archives are photographs taken for the soul, those singular images that are made just because. It is here, in this wealth of images that we begin to understand that man that was Irving Penn, for every photograph is a portrait of the artist and their worldview.

Irving Penn, Head in Ice, New York, 2002, printed 2003, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © Condé Nast

In the new exhibition “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty”, drawn entirely from the holdings of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the incredible breadth of the artist’s work is on view through March 20, 2016. A stunning monograph to accompany the show has just been released by Yale University Press.  Featuring 146 photographs, Beyond Beauty features work from all stages of Penn’s career including street scenes from the late 1930s, photographs of the American South from the early 1940s, celebrity portraits, fashion photographs, nudes, still lifes, and private studio images.

As Penn observed, “I have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.” It is this approach that sets Penn apart, distinguishing him as not only a technical master but a visionary as well. He understood not only the creation of the photograph in the camera, but the production of the print as well, as his revival of platinum printing in the 1960s and 1970s was a catalyst for significant change in the art world. Indeed his obsession became apparent in his practice of the craft. “A beautiful print is a thing in itself, not just a halfway house on the way to the page,” Penn revealed. “Over the years I must have spent thousands of hours silently brushing on the liquid coatings, preparing each sheet in anticipation of reaching the perfect print.”

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

As an arbiter of style Penn used the photograph to create a new lexicon of iconography, transforming mundane objects into unforgettable images of unexpected beauty. Using the photograph, Penn was able to bridge the divide between art and commerce, with his mind to what would speak to the people who would see his work. He observed, “Many photographers feel their client is the subject. My client is a woman in Kansas who reads Vogue. I’m trying to intrigue, stimulate, feed her. My responsibility is to the reader. The severe portrait that is not the greatest joy in the world to the subject may be enormously interesting to the reader.”

Penn understood what makes us look, what intrigues us enough to capture our attention and compel us to gaze until time disappears and what remains are echoes of the eternal.

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty” is on view now through March 20, 2016.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.