Smithsonian’s Irving Penn photo exhibit opens at Dallas museum

Irving Penn, ‘Bee, New York, 1995, printed 2001,’ chromogenic print, 21 1/2 x 24 in (54.6 x 61.0 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Promised gift of Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation

Irving Penn, ‘Bee, New York, 1995, printed 2001,’ chromogenic print, 21 1/2 x 24 in (54.6 x 61.0 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Promised gift of Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation


DALLAS – The Dallas Museum of Art presents “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty,” the first retrospective of Penn’s work in nearly 20 years, which will celebrate his legacy as a modern master and reveal the full expressive range of his work.

Irving Penn (1917–2009), known for his iconic fashion, portrait and still-life images that appeared in Vogue magazine, ranks as one of the foremost photographers of the 20th century.

The exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), features work from all stages of Penn’s career – street scenes from the late 1930s, photographs of the American South from the early 1940s, celebrity portraits, fashion photographs, still lifes and more private studio images.

On view at the DMA April 15 through Aug. 14, as the first venue of a five-city national tour, Irving Penn presents more than 140 photographs drawn exclusively from SAAM’s extensive holdings, including the debut of 100 photographs recently donated by the Irving Penn Foundation.

Penn’s pictures reveal a modernist instinct for stark simplicity, whether he was photographing celebrities, fashion models, still lifes or people in remote places of the world. The exhibition presents several previously unseen or never exhibited photographs. Also on view for the first time will be Super 8 mm films of Penn in Morocco, made by his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, which add a vivid picture of the artist at work.

“While Irving Penn is a celebrated artist, this new exhibition reveals a depth to his work that we have not always seen and understood,” said Olivier Meslay, associate director of Curatorial Affairs. “Beyond his fashion photography, Penn demonstrated the quintessential aspect of artistic creation: boldness, following and also breaking the rules, contrast and drama.”

In a career that spanned nearly 70 years, Penn’s aesthetic and technical skill earned him accolades in both the artistic and commercial worlds. He was a master of both black-and-white and color photography, and his revival of platinum printing in the 1960s and 1970s was a catalyst for significant change in the art world. He was one of the first photographers to cross the chasm that separated magazine and fine art photography, narrowing the gap between art and fashion. Penn’s portraits and fashion photographs defined elegance in the 1950s, yet throughout his career he also transformed mundane objects – storefront signs, food, cigarette butts, street debris – into memorable images of unexpected, often surreal, beauty.

“While Irving Penn was one of the key photographers of the 20th century, this will be the first retrospective of his work in 20 years, addressing the subjects for which he is most famous – from his iconic fashion images for Vogue to the works that stemmed from his private interests,” said Sue Canterbury, associate curator of American Art at the Dallas Museum of Art and presenting curator in Dallas for “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty.”

“His mastery of lighting and composition, and his technical prowess in the darkroom, reveal him as a true master of modern photography. Penn’s role as an innovator in the medium of photography is a compelling story,” said Centerbury.

The 100 photographs recently donated to SAAM, and on view in the exhibition, include rare street photographs from the late 1930s and 1940s, most of which are unpublished; images of postwar Europe; iconic portraits of figures such as Truman Capote, Salvador Dalí and Leontyne Price; color photographs made for magazine editorials and commercial advertising; self-portraits; and some of Penn’s most recognizable fashion and still-life photographs.

All the prints were made during the artist’s lifetime and personally approved by him. In 1988, Penn donated to SAAM 60 photographs, spanning his career from 1944 to 1986.

The museum will celebrate the opening of the exhibition at its April Late Night on Friday, April 15. At 7 p.m. exhibition curator Merry Foresta will discuss the exhibition, and at 9 p.m. Tracy Achor Hayes, editorial director of Neiman Marcus, will join photographer Debora Hunter in conversation about Penn’s influence and work.

Additional programs will be scheduled throughout the run of the exhibition. For details, dates and prices, visit

“Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty” requires a special exhibition ticket of $16 for adults, with discounts for students, military personnel, and seniors; DMA Members and children 11 and under are free.