06. Echo Hopkins Reviews Irving Penn: “Portraits”

Irving Penn’s death just four months before the opening of the Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery made it all the more poignant. It became a retrospective of sorts, displaying the portraits he created from the beginning of his career in the late 1940s to the last portrait he captured of Julian Schnabel in 2007. The gallery space was conducive to Penn’s black and white portraits, the curators choosing to stick to the beautiful simplicity of his work by keeping the walls of the space varying tones of grey, letting the portraits speak for themselves instead of placing them on bright backgrounds.

Penn’s exploration of the portrait is shown in chronological order, a method that gives the viewer a sense of his range of work. The show opens with one of his first portraits, of Giorgio de Chirico, from 1944. Penn captured de Chirico with a halo of leaves and a sideways glance, already showing his proclivity for catching a moment that helps break the façade of the sitter. He speaks to this in a quote: “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 knows or dares to believe.” Penn quickly gained momentum in the art and fashion worlds, and was motivated to take portraits of important contemporaries following his appointment to the Vogue staff. He began shooting portraits of the leading figures of his time such as Yves Tanguy, John Cage and Alexander Calder. These early portraits line the walls of the first room of the exhibition, giving the viewer an understanding of the base point from which Penn then experimented. Penn continued working for Vogue, influencing both the printed media aspect of the fashion world, as well as photography itself.

As the show progresses through his career we begin to get a sense of how much of a pioneer Penn really was. Examples of his use of tight spaces in order to bring out the small gestures of his sitters, the constant effort made in order to simulate natural light, and later his focus on tight cropping of the face are all exhibited in a manner that allows the viewer to see the constant adjustments being made in order to bring out the complicated personality of the sitter in a seemingly simple photograph. Again, Penn’s owns words express so eloquently what he strived for: “In portrait photography there is something more profound we seek inside a person, while being painfully aware that a limitation of our medium is that the inside is recordable only in so far as it is apparent on the outside.”

The cast of characters photographed throughout Penn’s career is strikingly impressive, his work here showing a multitude of the notable names in literature, music, visual and performing arts. This becomes amplified by the constancy of famous faces seen as you walk through the show realizing that the work spans over 40 years. A range of emotions, postures and expressions come through the work that stares out from the grey walls, drawing you close to the pictures themselves to explore each detail, from the sitter’s every wrinkle to the blurs Penn captured by slight movements. There is a fixedness in the work that makes the exhibit seem unnaturally static, each set of eyes in the portraits looking almost statuesque as they line the rooms — a quality that is jarring at first, but then becomes interesting.

Concentrating on one facet of Penn’s oeuvre, the show successfully leads the viewer around a collection of monumental works showing a variety of techniques. It establishes the revolutionary aspect of the work, along with the elegance and delicacy that it often portrayed. Penn’s photography is displayed here with iconic imagery that will forever be the standard set in the mid-twentieth century for portraiture.

St Martin’s Place
February 18 – June 6