ART, Attractions, DESTINATIONS, DFW Metroplex, Museums, Road Trips, TRAVEL

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty at Dallas Museum of Art

Focus on Fashion
Focus on Fashion


I do love fashion and Dallas is a great place for it.  NorthPark, The Galleria, Highland Park Village, The Dallas Design District – these are just a few of the places Dallas offers to the fashion-minded and until mid-August, the DMA is another stop for the fashion-forward.

The DMA Does Fashion

I can’t believe the Jean Paul Gautier Exhibition was five years ago!  It seems only yesterday I was popping into the DMA at every opportunity, showing off the strolling mannequins and crazy designs to anyone I could drag down there.  The Gautier exhibition was not the DMA’s last nod to fashion, but it will always be one of my favorites. 

That’s why I was so excited when I heard about this latest exhibit, Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty.  I haven’t been all that fond of some of the recent exhibition offerings, so I was ready to love something.  Unfortunately, I was not in town for the kick-off party, but I was invited to a lecture about Penn, so I waited until I knew more to take a peek.  The lecture was last Tuesday, so I’ll share a few tidbits.

Highlights of the Lecture

20160524_190437Sue Canterbury, The Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art and presenting curator for Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty in Dallas, was the speaker.  While the delicious Harlequin Dress pops off the signage for the exhibition, Ms. Canterbury chose  a very different type of photo to use as the intro slide of her lecture.  The message?  This isn’t your usual fashion photographer.

Becoming a famous fashion photographer was not the overriding passion of the young Irving Penn.  He studied drawing and painting in college, but fell into an internship at Vogue magazine.  Yeah, it makes me crazy, too – like Samantha Brown falling into her job as a TV travel host.  I’m still waiting to fall into whatever my destiny is and I’ve been waiting a long time.  It isn’t that either of them was undeserving of their luck, I just wish they’d smear a little of it on me.

Anyway, after his internship he slipped down to Mexico to give drawing and painting a try, but instead spent most of his time on the business end of a camera.  The interlude convinced him that he was in fact a photographer, so he came back to the States and was welcomed back into the bosom of Vogue.

20160524_201855Far from being an elitist artiste photographer, who showed up late for a shoot and reduced the models to tears, Irving Penn embraced his job.  He admired the models who he said trained him in fashion and always named them in the photo credits.  He worked hard designing his shots long before he got into the studio.  He became a virtuoso in the dark room, practicing his own brand of alchemy.  When it came to equipment, he became an engineer, not only training himself to know everything about f-stops and lenses, but inventing modifications to get his cameras to do what he wanted them to do, even if they weren’t originally designed to do it.

Then there was his work.  At the time he joined the industry, fashion photography was somewhat of a mess.  The scenery added to the frame was so fussy and crowded that one was hard-pressed to see the actual subject of the photograph.  Penn stripped all that away, leaving only the fashion against a stark background.  You see it all around you today and don’t realize who to give the credit to.  Well, you can thank Irving Penn.

You may be wondering if you’ve seen any of his work.  Seen a Clinique ad lately?  Well, he gave them their clinical vision.  As Ms. Canterbury flipped through the slides I saw many that made me think, “I remember that!”  But Irving Penn was a lot more than a fashion photographer.

He was a voracious photo diarist.  Wherever he was, he endeavored to capture the essence of what he saw, often by adding a flavor of Dadaism.  While other photographers in Paris clamored to capture the obvious beauty of the city, Penn sought out beauty in unlikely places, like in the flour dust on a pastry chef’s shoe.  Back in the States, he hired models who usually posed for art schools and brought them into his studio for geometric studies which stare so closely into the crotch of the model, with such technicality, that you forget what you are looking at and begin to see the geometric form.  In Peru, he hired out a studio usually patronized by the native population for holiday photographs, then paid the customers to let him shoot them in their unique costumes in poses of his choosing.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture (I’ll admit, pun intended.)  If you love fashion, you’ll love this exhibit, but so will people with an interest in photography who have no interest at all in fashion.  Marketing types will have a field day.  So obviously, I think you need to get down to the DMA and see this exhibit.  I’ll be joining you myself, soon.  They’d shuttered the exhibition when the lecture was over, so I have to get down there and see what I was writing about.

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