Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Irving Penn Portraits

A few weeks back I was invited to attend the Irving Penn Portraits exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery. As the first Penn museum exhibition to be held within the UK for 25 years, I had high expectations, and can happily say I wasn’t disappointed!

As a great and passionate fan of photography I have seen many exhibitions and retrospectives of Penn’s contemporaries in my short lifetime - such as Norman Parkinson, Hemut Newton and Cecil Beaton - so I was glad to see Penn remembered in this way, especially seeing as he sadly only passed away in October of last year.

Drawn to auspicious characters Penn’s portraits were hugely influential on me from a young age, and I was pleased to discover that when staring at them up close and personal they still had a profound effect on me all these years later. What I love most about Penn as a photographer is his ability to draw something unique out of his subjects, going above and beyond the average portrait photography of his time, stripping his sets back and focusing in on his subject, making it so they couldn’t hide from the lens, creating an unrivalled intensity - and in some cases eliciting an emotion - that other photographers simply couldn’t capture.

Featuring over 120 prints from Penn’s seven decade career the retrospective was split into chapters loosely categorised by decade, each was given its own room, allowing me (and other visitors) to walk through the timeline that was both Penn’s life and career. I found it really amazing to be able to walk through the decades and be able to see the subtle changes in Penn’s working practice, present in his images from the 1950s onwards where he began to photograph many of his subjects close up, rarely showing the view a sitter from below the waist.

What I love most about Penn’s work - which really hit home seeing the images hanging in the gallery - was how his lens captured all the greats from his era, and often saw him photograph his contemporaries such as: Helmut Newton, Cecil Beaton, Horst P Horst, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miro, Georgia O’Keeffe, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Julian Schnabel.

Other portraits captured the most talented cultural icons and visionaries of his generation, perpetuating the myths of the young, rich and famous through the decades: Marlene Dietrich, Truman Capote, Christian Dior, Richard Burton, Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, TS Eliot, Grace Kelly, Tennessee Williams, Yves Saint Laurent, Harold Pinter, Ingmar Bergman, Duke Ellington, Jean Cocteau and Woody Allen – the variety is truly staggering.

I really admire the beautiful composition that came through in many of Penn’s photographs where he often played with shadow, showing his subjects in their best possible light. Below I have included some of my favourite images from the exhibition, or at least the ones I could find. Regretfully my favourite image from the exhibition 'A Group of Intellectuals in Caffé Greco' Rome, 1948 can not be found – typical. Secondly I loved Penn's portrait of 'Edward Albee' New York, 1962, but alas I couldn't find that either.

'Harlequin Dress' New York, 1950
In the early 1950s Penn often shot his then wife Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn (pictured above), whom he helped propel into the spotlight which we’re in no doubt lead her to subsequently become the world’s first supermodel.
'Cecil Beaton with Nude' New York, 1946
'Truman Capote' New York, 1948
'Truman Capote' New York, 1965
I loved both of these images of Truman Capote, he just has such an expressive face!
'Marlene Dietrich' New York, 1948
'Salvador Dali', New York, 1947
'Alfred Hitchcock' New York, 1947
'Francis Bacon' London, 1962
'Giorgio de Chirico' Rome, 1944
'James Van Der Zee' New York, 1983
'Woody Allen as Charlie Chaplin' New York, 1972

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