Review By Padraig Spillane.
It may be a bit obvious to say that Irving Penn is one of the biggest innovators and stalwarts of portraiture. However, it is the truth and that’s something that’s always a bit thin on the ground. Irving Penn Portraits showing in the National Portrait Gallery in London is a timely reminder of his work, how his practice influenced photography and also the grace of the man behind the camera.
This exhibition is divided in to the decades of his work from the forties to the noughties, the decade of his death. These divisions illustrate the shifts in his practice and what he is trying to garner from his subjects. Penn’s subjects are from the world of art and celebrity coming mainly from his time working at Vogue.
Penn remained predominately a studio portrait artist. However, there are shifts in style and structure through the decades. In the forties and early fifties his work took place in what seems to be a studio without a cleaner. The studio is minimal almost borderline austere and threadbare. The word neutral does not seem to do it justice. It has its own aura it but never takes away from the people being photographed. Old carpets used as amorphous props, and cigarette butts on an unswept floor add to an air of almost an in-between place.
Within this dishevelled space Penn constructed a corner. This is the centre for most of the forty’s studio work where his subjects stand, pose and play. What emanates is the person in the glory of singularity. It’s like wrapping a ruby in old newspaper. The effect of rarity is heightened. It’s not all paparazzi flash bulbs and glitter. It is a place away from all that. What is captured is: gesture, the finest details of the person and perhaps an inner drama laid bare.
“Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. … Very often what lies behind the façade is rare and more wonderful than the subject know or dares to believe”. Irving Penn.
There is a move from the fifties toward capturing more (and less) of the subject. Penn closes the frame in around the face allowing only the head and shoulders to be visible. This move heightens the drama of a gesture or a particular posture, as seen in his portrait of Richard Burton and perhaps more famously of Pablo Picasso. Penn is seemingly a master at putting his subjects at ease and getting what he wants. There is nothing showy about these photos while at the same time the subjects do not seem to be restrained. What seems to be given (dare I say it) is honest, whether the person is at play or just being as they are.
The quality of the prints is, well, quite high. I found myself nearly with my nose to glass looking at the textures of clothing and faces. Although the studio shots have an air of asceticism there is vigour at work. The pose of Truman Capote must be down to leaving him let rip and exploring his space in the corner.
The portrait of sculptor Alberto Giacometti is my personal favourite. The symmetry, the texture, Giacometti’s presence in the photo and the chiaroscuro are all so beautifully structured. There is seriousness and a sincerity thats captivating. There is a little mystery there too. The light falls on a wall of a man with his arms folded (if I’m being glib it’s a pose that is in contrast to Giacometti’s own sculptures). Is there a reticence to being photographed? Is he tired? There seems to be an anxiety while everything is still. This tension obviously does not make it less of a portrait. It makes it even more. Giacometti seems to be what he is, a man being who he is. Irving Penn’s grace is to allow his subjects to be who they are.
I urge anyone who is heading to London to go to the National Portrait Gallery and find something wondrous in the eyes of Irving Penn’s portraits.