Irving Penn retrospective

“Influential” is a word used too often in the art world. Rarely has it been more appropriate than to describe American photographer Irving Penn (1917-2009), who created a style of portraiture that is as recognisable as it is emulated.

The National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition Irving Penn: Portraits is the largest UK show ever devoted to the work of the New Jersey photographer, and the first in 25 years. Comprising more than 120 prints, it spans almost seven decades of Penn’s prolific career and includes some of his most memorable images.

Penn became a photographer almost by accident. After studying at a Pennsylvania arts college he began working as an illustrator and designer at Vogue in the early 1940s. His first photographic assignment, a still life with a leather bag, ended up on the cover in 1943 – the first of 150 covers he produced for the magazine.

The compositional possibilities of still lifes continued to interest him – later he would turn his attention to photographing discarded cigarette butts, frozen food and ceramics – but portraits accounted for most of his work. His earliest, a photograph of Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, taken in 1944 while Penn was serving as an army ambulance driver in Rome, opens the NPG’s exhibition.

It is a head-and-shoulders shot of the artist posing outdoors against a neutral background. He looks directly at the camera. Apart from the laurel wreath on his head – a playful reference to de Chirico’s laurel-crowned self-portraits – it already reveals Penn’s desire to strip his sitters bare of references to their trades, the better to concentrate on character.

Between 1947 and 1948, Penn’s commissions defined this pared-down approach. In his New York studio, lit by tungsten bulbs to simulate daylight, his subjects would stand or sit against a grey backdrop. With no props other than cigarettes to hold onto or hide behind, the men and women who sat for Penn appear unusually exposed: actor Peter Ustinov contorts himself into a bundle of velvet and pale flesh; the poet Jean Cocteau, legs elegantly knotted, looks back defiantly; singer Edith Piaf returns the camera’s gaze wearily, stiffly recumbent against a heap of fabric; Alfred Hitchcock’s pose is (perhaps deliberately) reminiscent of a man sitting on a toilet. Sometimes Penn literally cornered his subjects, confining them in the space between two dummy walls: a young Truman Capote, hunched into his coat, seems vulnerable and lost.

Penn’s first trip to Europe saw a change in his methods, as he abandoned his full-body photographs in favour of closer examinations. His image of Marlene Dietrich (1948) shows her looking both beautiful and haunted, her body abstracted into a triangle of dark fabric from which her luminous head emerges tentatively.

By the 1950s, his gaze was zooming even closer into his subjects. Having previously made exquisite use of bodies and the clothes they were dressed in, these elements no longer seemed relevant to his compositions. He sought the keys to character in gesture and expression.

No image is more expressive of his approach than his 1957 picture of “Pablo Picasso at La Californie”. The artist’s face is partly concealed by his coat and by the brim of his hat. One side remains in darkness. A single eye is caught by the light. It is one of the most powerful representations of the too-much photographed Picasso. This trick of revealing character by concealing would become a typical Irving Penn feature: later images of performer Josephine Baker (1964), writer Anaïs Ninn (1971) or designer Issey Miyake (1988) made use of this technique to enhance the subjects’ persona. Taking this approach to its extreme is Penn’s near-abstract portrait of cartoonist Saul Steinberg wearing a brown paper nose mask (1966).

Reacting strongly against the cliché that eyes can be the windows into someone’s soul, Penn often chose to photograph his subjects with their eyes shut. The result, in portraits including those of Ingmar Bergman (1964) or the sculptor Louise Bourgeois (1992), is often more striking despite – or because of – the sitters’ apparent reluctance to be complicit in the full-frontal, open-eyed process of baring themselves for the camera.

Penn’s artistic trajectory can be traced by comparing his 1948 picture of a youthful and timid Truman Capote with the shockingly intimate close-up of a sulky Capote, eyes tightly closed and fingers pressed into the fleshy forehead, taken in 1965. The latter is also significant as proof of Penn’s artistry as a printmaker. Most of the images in the NPG’s exhibition are gelatin silver prints, but Penn spent a lot of time trying to perfect the time-consuming process of printing on platinum-coated paper. The Capote image is astonishing in its range of tones, and in its tactile quality.

If the latest portraits on show look a bit too much like so many other pictures that circulate today, it is because the world of photography caught up with Penn while he remained committed to his fundamental principles of clarity, directness and precision. “I recognise [the camera] for the instrument it is, part-Stradivarius, part-scalpel,” Penn once wrote. He was also astute enough to recognise the medium’s main limitation: “that the inside is recordable only in so far as it is apparent on the outside”.

‘Irving Penn: Portraits’, National Portrait Gallery, London, to June 6.

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