Irving Penn and expectations

I made a point of seeing the Portraits exhibition by Irving Penn at the National Portrait Gallery, London, recently. I was underwhelmed, which was a surprise, and I’m curious about why this should be.

I have always admired Irving Penn’s photography. I have a copy of Passage on my bookshelf that dates from 1991; it’s a selection made by Penn of images from his career. Fascinating and admirable stuff but, like an autobiography, not an independent view. He also did photography a great service by rediscovering and promoting the platinum/palladium printing process. I remember seeing original pt/pd prints of his Cigarette series from the early 1970s. The quality was superb: he has the ability to elevate a trite, ignored subject into art; he sees and photographs things sufficiently differently that his images are eye-catching and with such quality that you want to look for longer.

It was with these preconceptions that I anticipated with some excitement the Portraits exhibition. Many of the portraits that helped make Irvin Penn’s name were present together with many less well know ones. They were arranged chronologically by decade, implying, with some justification, that Penn’s development showed significant evolution in tune with the decimal system. We are now used to these images and the styles are clearly of their time. At the time they would have been progressive and edgy, and many of them are regarded as classic portraits. But I kept wondering how much of what I was seeing was the photographer and how much the sitter. How much insight are we getting into the person being photographed? On the wall of the exhibition was written a quote from Penn: “…the inside is recordable only in so far as it is apparent on the outside.” Well, duh, yeh. If that level of insight is transferred to the portraits I really have to think that what we are seeing in Penn’s images is style rather than substance. Why should I be surprised at this? After all, he did earn his living from the fashion industry. I was underwhelmed because it didn’t meet my expectations, but that’s my fault not Penn’s; in the end, the exhibition has added another facet to my appreciation of his photography.

For what it’s worth, here are the notes I made as I went round the exhibition:

to 1948
Uniform even light. Full length poses. A distance between viewer and subject. Posing corner and posing carpet used frequently to get sitter’s reaction to an artificial situation. Little evidence of sitter’s environment.

Getting closer. Lighting more directional. Shadows becoming more important. Head shots more common. Cloths more prominent? Still no evidence of sitter’s environment – all studio stuff.

Starting to chop off tops of heads – getting too close? Eyes/nose/mouth poses. Hands too. Directional lighting with shadows.

1970s and 1980s
A few smiles but mainly subject “just” looking (semi-engaged?)

1990s onwards
Higher contrast images – unfriendly?


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