Having missed the study day of the Irving Penn exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery in London, I lost no time in booking for the private view. This included a drink and a talk by the curator, Magdalene Keaney, as well as a relatively uncluttered gallery.
The talk by Magdalene Keaney (the quotation marks include her text from the introduction to the book accompanying the exhibition) lasted about 15 minutes and was an introduction to both Penn and the exhibition. The work on show here not surprisingly represents only a small part of his work, concentrating on cultural figures, most of whom were photographed for Vogue. He also did many photographs of ordinary people who were selected on the basis of their occupation; however, the images seen here are of those "people whose ideas and work have shaped our own" and for this reason, they are worth seeing as they strengthen "our understanding of the importance of their accomplishments" . Those represented are artists, writers and musicians rather than those famous for being famous.
The exhibition consists of 120 images, some of them vintage prints which means that they were made at the time the negative was made. All the photographs are in black and white revealing the expressive characteristics of that medium. Often, there are areas of solid black which serve to dramatise form and content yet offer up no detail.
Penn worked for Vogue, once desribed by Avedon as a magazine afraid of anything to do with age and death. Those who knew Penn described him as humble and modest. His work was mostly done in the studio with plain backgrounds notably in a tight corner or on a cloth covered plinth. He used the photographer's tools of light and space while his sitters assumed different usually striking postures; Penn refers to these as sculptural.
Kearney writes that "It is not possible to have a meaningful discussion about the development of portraiture since the 1940's without reference to the work of Irving Penn. He challenged and changed expectations of what a studio portrait can be." This is great praise that lifts Penn from his status as photographer to that of artist. She goes on to point out that, "In 1947 and 1948,, Penn made a series of portraits that represent a major breakthrough in the history of photography - a stylistic and coneptual break from mid-twentieth-century conventions. At a time when other leading magazine photographers either incorporated complex and dramatic sets or portrayed subjects in their surroundings, Penn developed a new approach". "Penn's images remain a fixed beacon" that have instructed "photographers and designers across many generations who have assimilated his visual language into their own picture-making."
His style did change over the years though. During the 1950's and 1960's, he closed in on his subject with head and shoulder portraits with greater emphasis on gesture and expression.
Penn obviously realised the importance of a rapport between himself and the sitter considering it one of the most important aspects of the portrait process. He was aware of the need to find the real person behind the mask shown to the world. He did this by, in his own words, by "the subject and I relating equally to each other as one human being to another". He did not like to use the word shoot saying that a photo-session was more of a love affair.
He was also aware as Keaney writes of "his journalistic responsibility to communicate to readers at every level"; Penn is quoted as saying, "My client is the woman in Kansas who reads Vogue."
While Penn is relevant to me as a portraitphotographer, his work does reflect on the theme of People and Place since the latter is almost entirely absent although some portraits do include not just the effect of theatre flats forming a corner but also include the theatre flats themselves, an effect which helps to deconstruct the portrait photograph.
What concerns me about the images, is the large areas of solid black. I would be happier if they contained detail and am left wondering whether this was deliberate or brought about by the limitations of the darkroom processes of his era.