Wandering into the Smithsonian American Art Museum to see Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, on view through March 20, my eye passed quickly over a wall of photographs of signs and streets. That’s weird, I thought. What’s Walker Evans’s work doing in Penn’s show? Then I spied a picture of boys playing in front of a white wall. Must be one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s outtakes. Certain portraits looked like they were made by August Sander, others by Paul Strand.
It was only when I saw two fashion photographs – one of a disembodied white glove holding up a disembodied black shoe (1947) and another of the model Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn making a goofy black-and-white Harlequin dress look as neat as a newly mopped floor (1950) – that I knew I was in the right place: Penn station, which has, it turns out, many tracks.
Before seeing this beautiful, broad-ranging retrospective, curated by Merry Foresta, I’d never thought of Penn as a Zelig photographer. But he was, and he knew it. Toward the end of his life Penn made a collage of names titled “The Author’s Tree of Influence,” which included practically every painter and photographer he owed a debt to. At the trunk of the tree were Penn’s two influential bosses, the art directors Alexey Brodovitch of Harper’s Bazaar and Alexander Liberman of Vogue.
Penn is famous for his classical and strange fashion photographs, which often focus on feet, shoes, hands, gloves, arms and sleeves cropped in surrealistic ways, leaving what’s sometimes called a part object in the frame. But Penn also made many street portraits, some involving his models. For instance, Sore Foot (Jean Patchett), shot in Lima in 1948, shows a woman’s disembodied arm rubbing her disembodied foot, as the offending shoe sits guiltily on the ground.
Penn could make a shoe guilty or a sleeve funny or a cigarette stub monumental or a waist weird. He could also reduce the biggest personality to its animal core. Penn’s most memorable works are the portraits that resemble no one else’s, particularly those he took in a corner of his studio, trapping his subjects like little beasts. I think of them as anti-Annie Leibovitz portraits, pictures of famous people whose talents (and sometimes limbs) have been ripped from them. For a portrait of Agnes de Mille, Penn shoves her into the corner like a bad girl. One of her legs has gone missing; the other is planted boldly in front. De Mille was one of the most powerful choreographers alive, but here she’s just a little one-legged animal, trapped but defiant.