Irvine Penn

Irving Penn a master of portraiture

Giles Huxley-Parlour on the National Portrait gallery’s homage to a master of portraiture

The Irving Penn show at the National Portrait gallery (18th February – 6th June 2010) marks the latest in a run of welcome photography exhibitions in London, and pays homage to the recently deceased master. It had been planned, of course, while Penn was still alive, so his death last year has added an unexpected touch of sadness to the affair. However, only a touch, because the man lived ninety years, and this exhibition of over 70 years of portraiture has become a celebration of a life extremely well spent.

The feel of the exhibition is cool, calm and collected, much like the photographs in it. Divided into five sections that both chronologically and stylistically divide up his career, it is neatly and sensibly digestible. It is also strangely hypnotic, as the milky, yet beautifully crisp prints hang in uniform rows, each framed in milky, thin grey frames. Despite the huge crowds, I left the exhibition considerably calmer than when I arrived. But I also felt I knew Penn’s work a lot better. There is nothing daring about this show, but that is a good thing – it is informative, simple, and cleverly curated, with no academic agenda behind it.

One of the most remarkable things about it is the consistent brilliance of the man over seventy years. I spend most of my working life putting together shows of photographers, many of them famous for their portraits, but I cannot think of one who did not go off the boil for large segments of their career. There is something about taking portraits in the studio that becomes monotonous over several decades – photographers slip into routine, become pastiches of themselves. Not so Irving Penn. One can observe the same gentle inventiveness, combined with electrifying good taste in the pictures that he took for Vogue in the 1940s, and the last portrait that he took – ┬áJulian Schnabel in 2007. Also undiminished was the man’s ability to extract personality. Snowdon, our country’s equivalent master, fell pray to his sitters overbearing personalities at some point in the 1990s – he lost control of his sittings. Penn on the other hand maintained complete control until the very end. Schnabel looks wild and electrified, frozen in Penn’s grey, razor sharp mirror.

Penn expressed a desire to see beyond the face, and try to record what goes inside (although he worried that this was potentially impossible). Some of the sitters in the show even have their eyes closed to suggest such an idea, but I think that Penn already had it done. Through isolating a sitter in a grey expanse, sat simply on a roll of carpet, the famous become like specimens, and there is nothing to avert your gaze from the figure in question. Portrait photographers in the years before Penn, and since, tended to clutter their photographs with props, sets and other associated frippery that was intended to reveal something about the sitter – of course it only distracts. Most of Penn’s pictures have nothing in them except the person, normally immaculately dressed, and the bare, tatty studio. That they often seem out of place in this odd environment, only serves to magnify their personality. Crucially, though, he did not invite attitude or posing, like Bailey did with his white back ground portraits, and the sitter is left to respond as they please to the camera, while Penn talks to them and ‘starts exposing film’.

If there is posing or theatre in the portraits, then it is only under the precise control of Penn himself. The ever exuberant Truman Capote (1948) is pushed into a tight, V-shaped space in which all his gestures become enhanced, his personality squeezed out like toothpaste from a tube by this simple device, which was used for several of Penn’s sittings during the 1940s. Others respond differently, like The Duchess of Windsor (1948), who stands proud and slightly terrifying in the V, a bit like a figurehead on a ship. The man was a complete genius.

If I’m honest, I normally tire of large shows of portraiture like this, I can’t cope with more than about 50 pictures before I want to see another type of photograph. This exhibition, however, is quietly exhilarating throughout. My only complaint is that some of the sitters are too obscure today, and I would have appreciated some simple information next to each photograph to help me along. Otherwise, I am going to be bold – this exhibition confirms Irving Penn as the greatest portrait photographer of the 20th century, if not of all time. It’s a must see.

Giles Huxley-Parlour, Director of Photography, Chris Beetles GalleryGiles Huxley-Parlour is Director of Photographs at the Chris Beetles Gallery, London. He has organised major exhibitions of such important photographers as Cecil Beaton, Bill Brandt, Norman Parkinson, Snowdon, Terry O’Neill, Edward Weston, Terence Donovan and many more. He currently organises up to eight commercial exhibitions per year, and is responsible for establishing the Chris Beetles Gallery as a major force in the international photography market.