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Why Fans of ‘Vogue’ Magazine Will Swoon over MoPA’s Upcoming Exhibition

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty will feature the works of the prolific fashion photographer who had longstanding collaborations with many national publications
Woman in Moroccan Palace

By Kimberly Cunningham

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the Museum of Photographic Arts’ upcoming exhibition might just leave viewers speechless. Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is a retrospective of fashion photographer Irving Penn, whose prolific career spanned the 20th century. Devout readers of fashion magazines may recognize Penn’s work, thanks to his longstanding collaboration with Vogue and other national publications. But curator Merry Foresta says, “Most people don’t realize how much of his work extended beyond the pages of a magazine.”

Foresta, a special project consultant for the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was charged with assembling the catalog of 160 images that were gifted to the Smithsonian by the Irving Penn Foundation. MoPA is the final stop on the collection’s national tour, and the only stop on the West Coast.

Unlike previous Penn exhibitions, which have been mounted in the likes of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Met, this one displays some of his work from the late ’30s and early ’40s for the very first time.

“These are the images that formed his dictionary of life and what interested him,” Foresta explains. “They show the underlying subjective world of Penn, and are very much the work of a humanist, someone concerned about people. If you look at those early images, you’ll get a clue to all those other images.”

These “other images” comprise the bulk of Penn’s career, the decades he spent traveling to France, Italy, Spain, and beyond to capture the season’s fashions worn by the world’s top-billed models. His portraiture became beloved, shot in sparse studios with controlled natural light and famous subjects like Truman Capote, T. S. Eliot, Édith Piaf, Salvador Dalí, and Balthus.

Penn’s carefully honed techniques helped transform photography into the art form it is today. In particular, he has been championed for distinguishing photography as a craft and using it as a means to spotlight beauty in the world. “He was a fashion photographer with heart and mind,” Foresta says.

According to her, he was one of the first photographers in history to hold an important exhibition in a gallery, and one of the first to build a bridge between fine art and commercial photography.

MoPA’s exhibition tracks Penn’s creativity up until his death in 2009 at age 92—which merited the front page of the New York Times. Foresta refers to this later period as Penn’s “mature work.”

Given his long career and broad scope of subjects, the retrospective also presents a fascinating account of the 20th century. Foresta says, “It shows the development of a photographer’s eye and alerts us to the fact that someone like Penn had a great effect on how we view the world.”

During the collection’s San Diego visit, she hopes that people take a longer look at the work of an artist who was, in her eyes, “a consummate professional.” “These are very smart, thoughtful images,” she notes. “There’s something in every one that goes deeper than the surface. If you look closer, it will reward you.”

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty

September 29–February 17

MoPA, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park


Why Fans of ‘Vogue’ Magazine Will Swoon over MoPA’s Upcoming Exhibition

Woman in Moroccan Palace

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