Commemorating the Life of Irvin Penn

Kara Anderson 17 March 2010

Irving Penn Portraits’ – National Portrait Gallery – Until 6th June 2010

The retrospective of Irving Penn photographs currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery launched shortly after his death last October. It compiles portraits of a broad swath of cultural figures including composers, designers, artists, choreographers, writers and performers taken between 1944 and 2007. Painters are heavily featured and, with the rare exception, celebrities per se are shunned.

The requisite element in creating dynamic portraits is comfort between photographer and subject: Penn compels this trust. It becomes clear that he inspires this faith because in the realm of culture he is a confidant of the milieu, not an outsider. The only self-portrait on display shows him with fellow Vogue photographers, peaking out over a bush, handsome, smiling and amongst his own. In numerous images, such as Joan Miro and his daughter, Dolores (1948), the subject’s family is included, enhancing the perception of intimacy.

Some subjects have sat for Penn on more than one occasion over a span of decades. Truman Capote has two portraits on view, one from 1948 and the next from 1965, further giving the impression that the people he photographs are not so much subjects but friends and colleagues. The group portrait Ellsworth Kelly, Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland (2002) is a late testament of his ability to bring together luminaries which other photographers could hardly hope to sway. Some images contain props alluding to the vocation of the sitter, John Cage (1946) with an instrument or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson (1955) with an architectural model, however most focus on the visage. Brooding intensity is the most frequent posture, as seen in Alberto Giacometti (1950), but interspersed are relaxed and comical images such as a radiant portrait of Grace Kelly (1954) completely at ease or Woody Allen as Charlie Chaplin (1972). A welcome addition to the exhibition is some encased editions of the Vogue magazines in which the photographs were originally published. Although gorgeously framed in the gallery, it reminds the viewer that many were intended for a different, more popular context.

If there is a fault to the exhibition it is the fact that the lion’s share of portraits are from a two-year period, 1947 and 1948. In contrast to the more decadent sets of popular photographers of this era, Penn was perfecting his minimalist approach using bare, industrial sets, thus allowing the sitter to command the viewer’s sole attention. While clearly an important part of his development and a device which he returns to regularly, it was probably not necessary to include dozens of comparable pictures of public figures posed on rolls of old carpet or in haphazardly constructed wood corners to make the point. Alternatively there are only 13 photographs from the last two decades of his life, presumably the culmination of his career.

The exhibition is fairly small and most appropriate for lovers of Penn’s work, portraits in general or aficionados of mid-nineteenth century intellectual movements. Though not every personality exhibited is likely to be familiar, the company of more recognisable greats like Salvador Dali (1947) and Josephine Baker (1964) rouses the belief that all should be known. For this purpose the curator has included a small guidebook to illuminate the less famous (or simply more forgotten) amongst them such as Blaisse and Raymone Cendrars (1948) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (1966).

Kara Anderson