To its practitioners and enthusiasts, fashion photography has always been the most underappreciated of modern art forms.
With its unavoidable links to advertising and commerce, the fashion photo was until only recently the orphan stepchild of the art world, indisputably easy on the eye but calculated to stimulate material desire and consumption rather than to elevate the spirit.
Irving Penn, who along with his sometime rival and colleague Richard Avedon set a new standard for the art of postwar fashion photography, was a perfectionist in matters of craft and wholly original in his pictorial imagination.
Yet because he made his living by selling magazine images, the art world ignored him for decades. And when it finally did recognize his genius, it was for all the wrong reasons.
This is the implicit narrative underlying the terrific show of Penn's photographs that opens tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Irving Penn: Platinum Prints presents a generous sampling of the more than 100 photographic prints, collages and other materials Penn recently donated to the museum.
Like nearly every photographer of note during the golden age of the great picture magazines, including W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Avedon himself, Penn was often disappointed by the way his images appeared on the pages of glossy periodicals such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.
He created pictures with painstaking effort and attention to the smallest details of composition and color. Yet the editors who bought his work felt perfectly free to clip, crop or otherwise alter his photographs according to the whims of page designers. Moreover, the limited tonal scale of printing inks lost much of the fine detail in Penn's negatives.
As a result, during the mid-1960s, Penn began experimenting with prints made on platinum or palladium papers, which have longer and richer tonal ranges than conventional printing papers made with salts of silver.
Platinum emulsions had been popular at the turn of the century, but fell into disuse after World War I when scarcity drove up the price of the metal.
So Penn trained himself to mix his own chemicals in the darkroom, then brush them onto sheets of carefully selected watercolor paper. When he printed his fashion and portrait images on these materials, the photographs acquired a wealth of new detail and an uncanny sense of depth.
The show presents nearly all of Penn's most famous images: the iconic fashion shot of his wife, the model Lisa Fonssagrives, wearing the designer gown that gave new meaning to the concept "little black dress" (and also, incidentally, to the dictum "one can never be too rich or too thin"); the celebrity portraits of Pablo Picasso, H.L. Mencken, Woody Allen, George Balanchine, Marcel Duchamp and others of his era's movers and shakers; the semi-journalistic essays on hippies, bikers and rock bands; and, finally, the amazing ethnographic studies of people in developing countries, whom he managed to depict without a trace of Western discomfort, condescension or spite.
Then in the mid-1970s, Penn created a series of platinum photographs of crushed cigarette butts, cellophane wrappers and other urban detritus that seemed almost a deliberate parody of the art world's taste for images that confer monumental permanence on wholly ephemeral artifacts.
The pictures were exhibited in 1977 at the Museum of Modern Art, where they elicited excited reviews both pro and con, but more importantly, they earned the photographer widespread recognition as a major figure in American art.
It is ironic that a man who devoted his career to creating graceful, witty and knowing pictures that were both formally inventive and spoke straight from the heart could win the art world's respect only by photographing arty trash.
But perhaps that is evidence more of the art world's often misplaced priorities than any meaningful measure of Penn's achievement as an artist.
What: Irving Penn: Platinum Prints
Where: The National Gallery of Art, Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W., in Washington
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays; tomorrow through Oct. 2
Call: 202-737-4215; www.nga.gov