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Irving Penn unhinged

A new show in Washington, DC, brings out his surreal side

George Pendle | October 26th 2015

For 66 years Irving Penn took photos for Vogue magazine. He photographed clothes and food with an intimacy usually reserved for one’s beloved, and portrayed models and celebrities with the precision and impersonality of a butterfly collector pinning a specimen to a board. He was the world’s best-known fashion photographer, yet the fact that he was also one of the most daring and innovative artists working in the medium is often lost in the smog of glamour. A fascinating new show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, brilliantly reveals the experimental nature that lay at the foundation of his commercial vision. 

It does so head-on. The first image you see in the gallery (and on the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue) is a photograph of the head of a mannequin with bright red lipstick encased in ice (detail above). But the ice has been shattered, blurring and fracturing our vision, deforming the flawless visage of the dummy, and making us uncertain if this is a painting or a photograph or something in between. Astonishingly the photo dates from 2002, when Penn was 85 years old. It was wittily, if somewhat prosaically, used to illustrate a Vogue article on the benefits of cold water on one’s skin. However, the effect is akin to a Francis Bacon portrait of the supermodel Gisele Bündchen – a clash of beauty and deformity.

Deformity and distortion had been there from the very start. Penn had wanted to be a painter when young and had attended art school in Philadelphia. He had even had some illustrations published when he worked as an assistant on Harper’s Bazaar in the 1930s. Yet he found he couldn’t stop himself wandering the streets of Philadelphia and New York taking photos of shop fronts and street signs. Penn had been dipped in art school for too long to be truly classed a documentary photographer like the great Walker Evans. Surrealism was at its zenith and its influence on Penn is clear to see in photos such as “Beauty Shop” (1937) in which the top half of a mannequin hovers on a wooden plinth, a dismembered image straight out of De Chirico. In “Optical Goods” (c.1942) three painted eyes peer out of an optician’s storefront, a Magritte-like image that confirms Penn’s predilections. He photographed everything that was off-key or unhinged, whether it was shop signs with missing letters, silhouettes of giant scissors, misspelled graffiti or advertising posters of babies with their heads ripped off.

Lovely yet disconcerting

Irving Penn’s “Chicks in a Jar” (1942)

The lovely yet disconcerting “Chicks in a Jar” (1942, pictured), in which two delicate chicks are stuffed into a glass canister, somehow seems like the perfect segue between his street images and his high fashion work. Indeed “Girl Behind Bottle (Jean Patchett)” (1949) is almost an exact corollary, the fragile silhouette of a model squeezed into a bottle. By now Penn’s images were becoming more expressionist in tone, less descriptions than evocations.  

Surrealism had given Penn the perfect preparation for fashion photography. He now depicted the shoes, gloves, hats, lips and cocktail glasses he was commissioned to photograph floating free from the body, as dislocated as the images he had found in the city shopfronts. Women in black suits were turned into armless silhouettes or legless mermaids. Hats balanced on shadows. Penn could even make the pocket of a coat – “Molyneux Pocket Detail” (1950) – look alien and surprising, while in “Cracked Egg” (1958) a simple broken egg was turned into a volcanic overspill. 

More formal were his celebrity photographs, although even here he fought against his own self-imposed restrictions. He eliminated all props, the better to focus on his subjects’ bodies, which he pulled and shaped like Silly Putty. The writer Truman Capote is squeezed like a seductive slug between two boards. The dancer Agnes de Mille leans backwards in a chair, no limbs visible except for one perfectly pointed leg. Distortion is here too. A bravura portrait of Henry Moore riding a bicycle blurs all the details of his face so that it resembles one of his monolithic sculptures, while a later portrait of Capote sees him stretching his skin with his fingers. 

Nevertheless these portraits are perhaps the least interesting works on show. Indeed, next to the exquisite photographs of flattened street trash that Penn took in the 1970s (and which he made as extremely expensive platinum and palladium prints) the celebrities seem almost shabby. When Penn turned his full transmogrifying power onto a smashed paper cup, a muddy glove or a ripped pack of cigarettes, they became luxury items. 

The breadth of his work was extraordinary. In 1948 he was photographing a bowl of bouillabaisse in colourful excess. That same year he was also staging a strange black-and-white tableaux of masked men in Cuzco, Peru, garroting one another. The only thing that links them is their peculiarity. While Penn’s erstwhile rival, Richard Avedon, was famed for his minimalist portraits on a sheer white background, Penn was constantly experimenting with photographic effects. Most notably these experiments occurred in his self-portraits in which he stretched and fractured his own features to an almost masochistic degree.

When the Smithsonian American Art Museum held its last retrospective of Penn’s work 20 years ago, Penn was still alive and vetoed the use of much of his commercial work. Now, six years after his death, we are no longer held to his own fractured portrait of himself. Here at last is the full-bodied thing. 

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, to March 20th

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