By Molly Swartz
Irving Penn’s Beyond Beauty will be debuted in the Smithsonian American Art Museum this winter. His 146 photographs from the Irving Penn Foundation archives will be presented in an exhibit like no other. Each one of his intense, thought provoking images connotes an American life outside of the societal beliefs most citizens grew up learning. He defies governmental thinking by showing the underdog side to any and every situation.
Penn, born in 1917, in the middle of WWI, had a very distinct viewpoint on the controversial topics such as slavery and oppression presented to the American society in his time. He began expressing his ideas through painting, but ultimately concluded that his talents were much more prevalent in photography. Penn began his photography career by shooting the cover of an issue of Vogue Magazine in 1942.
Although many new photographers were trying to become successful at the beginning of WWII, Penn had a special technique that truly sparked the interest of the best publishers in the business. In an interview before he passed away, Penn stated that he placed two backdrops in the formation of a corner, as “a means of closing people in. Some people felt secure in this spot, some felt trapped.” He said that “their reaction made them quickly available to the camera.” This technique inspired many other photographers after Penn. The style appeared in increasingly more works after the 1940s.
In the early 1950s, Penn founded his own art studio in New York. It was a combination of the city of New York, his childhood in the Roaring 20s, and WWII that inspired him to photograph many different aspects of society from his distinct, unusual viewpoint of a reflected individuality and equality in all people.
One of Penn’s favorite topics was women’s rights. He played with different aspects of femininity, as more and more women joined the workforce during WWII.
These pictures clearly identify the development of independence and mindsets of women as times changed with the war. Penn’s use of intense shadowing and contrasting set a defiant mood for both women in his pictures. He plays with depth perception and mirror images to create a photograph that intrigues the viewer.
Penn also photographed women in a non-political fashion. He focused on inner beauty, and allowed women to be pictured in their most natural state. In these pictures, Penn staged the women in a complicated, twisted position. This perfectly balanced the thought of women as being timid when exposing their bodies, and their confidence to show any body type.
Racial controversies in the late 1950s and the early 1960s sparked inspiration in Penn. He focused on children, and his images imbued a sense of pain in their viewers. His pictures displayed unhappy children, all of whom are wearing tattered clothing. Penn’s viewpoint on the unfairness of segregation was prevalent in these pictures, which is why publishers chose to use his pictures as opposed to another, more neutral, photograph. Penn had a strong sense of pathos, which enabled him to successfully empathize with the innocence of children and their struggle with racial segregation, and their struggle to fit in with varying cultures.