Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty
an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Tx. April 15, 2016 – August 14, 2016 (now closed)
Lingering over Penn’s portrait of Simone de Beauvoir, I can’t imagine the word “second” ever appeared in her work, in any guise. She sits with her body pointed to the side, but her head turned toward the viewer, as if you have distracted her from some engagement of the utmost importance. The material of her seat looks plush, and a bright button on her jacket possesses the flicker of a meteor, but her upright, strong posture dominates the picture. I’m especially struck by the details of the dark. Thin wisps dangle in space, flowing into her hair, a jet-black mass ornamented by only a touch of light. A deep shadow falls along one side of her face and body, and at first it feels distorting. It doesn’t fit with the precision weave of her jacket, shimmering from every angle. Nor is there a resemblance to the soft, hazy play of light and dark in the backdrop, Penn’s deliberate studio choice, I assume. No, that sharp shadow makes her stern gaze fixing the viewer all the more authoritative. She’s known darkness, she’s endured it, her elegance is earned.
To be sure, this is one of the photographs I did not see at the exhibition. I only had an hour, and that was my fault, because I wanted to eat. I ate very well (tuna salad with organic greens upon a crepe), but it didn’t take long in the gallery to realize that I should have brought a notebook and planned to spend four or more hours making notes, sketches, trying out paragraphs. Fashion photography is purposely overdone, and Penn is certainly a fashion photographer. Yet he’s so much more. A quick way of placing him in a timeline might cite his influences as surrealism or modernism, but that’s underselling his dedication and achievement. It’s more like: whatever we know now as fashion photography came from whatever he forged from his various influences, his own imagination.
There were many outstanding photographs from his early work, but the other visitors and I found ourselves drawn easily to one vivid, charming picture. Young Boy, Pause Pause, taken on a road trip that passed through the South, features a personage who might have issue with Penn’s declaration that he photographed people in African-American neighborhoods “as chance composed them, lounging in front of barber shops and shoeshine parlors. The camera in my hands did not seem to intrude.” Uh-huh. The boy is dressed more finely than I’ll ever be, his glare and raised eyebrow asking “Who is this idiot taking photos of me?” He alone looms large, but the presence of two huge Coca-Cola advertisements behind him, each commanding “Pause,” puts one squarely in the awkwardness of being a photographer. It’s a fine line between observer and voyeur, and for the best artists, it probably takes a moment of confrontation to bring them to awareness. It’s funny how one can work to be more aware of one’s art, craft, surroundings, people, world and strangely lose sight of how an individual from out of town might react to your snapping a camera at him.
Still, that doesn’t mean you abandon your work, your mode of engaging the world. Mark and I both stared in wonder at his rich portraiture of indigenous people. I’m not sure what to share with you from the exhibition, as Young Berber Shepherdess, Morocco, 1971 has my full attention, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see this in person:
Her garments have weight, but they are not a burden. Dark, leaflike designs surround her head, and a shawl that is a study in lines wraps around her shoulders. On that shawl, the white lines glow, most especially the dotted stitching dividing the darker lines. The rest of her garment seems of rougher, worn material, and her hands, strongly gripping the sheep upon her shoulders, do not want of work.
All of this is prelude to her facial expression. I see her as confused, almost worried, yet strongly curious. Again: What’s behind the camera? Why does anyone want my picture? Not so much Penn being a foreigner, but the art itself is the curiosity. If the Berber shepherdess knew about runway fashion, she might be more puzzled. Her garments have obvious utility and are beautiful in regard to her function, her way of life. What kind of way of life only tries to dazzle? What kind only tries to document?
Penn brought a portable studio with him – it was a specialized tent – and let the technical prowess of fashion portraiture do the work. Perhaps these most of all speak to what is “beyond beauty,” as they are beautiful for reasons completely divorced from the beauty industry of the capitalized world. I speak of this like it’s Penn’s final accomplishment, but really, it’s the most accessible accomplishment for a casual observer like myself, who can’t fully appreciate the amount he put into his craft.
To take one, final example that I’m still wondering about: his series of nudes. There are no faces. He lets the body stand as a sculpted shape, evoking sculptures like Jean Arp’s “Human Concretion” or “Eater of the Rose.” Only, despite the abstraction from personality, the texture of the flesh still stands out, the lighting only frames the body. It doesn’t feel like he reduces the human body to an object. Rather, his fleshy forms are a pointing toward. I suspect that if one finds them real, if one finds them essential to the sensual, then a curiosity has been awakened toward things human.