A major retrospective of photographer Irving Penn includes previously unseen works ...


"In 1975, New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition of photographs depicting crushed cigarette butts collected from the streets of Manhattan. In an era when smoking was still considered cool, the large-scale close-ups of torn paper and twisted bits of tobacco stripped the cigarettes of their sexy cache, while at the same time elevating street trash to a subject worthy of the attention of a master photographer. As if to drive the point home, the pictures were printed using a solution of the precious metal platinum, a throwback method that required extreme precision and patience.

"The artist was Irving Penn, who remains best known for his haute couture pictures in Vogue—images that appear side-by-side with his portraits of street trash in a major retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that includes rare images from the 1930s and 1940s, many of which were never published.

"But while today Penn’s status seems firmly established, back in the 1970s, photography itself was still considered not quite worthy of the full museum treatment. It was inevitable that Penn’s MoMA show would attract controversy.

"'Photographs of things such as old cigarette butts meticulously printed using expensive metals. . . . seemed an ironic and even rude comment on the world of fashionable luxury for which Penn had previously worked,' writes the Smithsonian exhibition’s curator, Merry Foresta, in an accompanying essay. 'Some critics wondered if this work, intended for the gallery wall rather than the printed page, overstepped the bounds of commercial art while sullying the redoubts of high art.'

"Today’s museumgoers, however, see photography as one of the main pillars of contemporary art, and they are more willing to accept a certain fluidity between commerce and fine art. And that, Foresta argues, is thanks in large part to Penn. 'For 70 years, he put forth extraordinary pictures,' she says. 'If you were building a pyramid, he would be at the base of our whole visual culture.'"

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