Irving Penn

I was aware that the Irving Penn (1917-2009) portraits exhibition was on at the National Portrait Gallery in London (April 2010). I had been planning to go in a few weeks, however I had an unexpected free day today. Taking advantage of some nice weather I decided to head into London with the camera and work on some personal projects and street photography. I hadn’t booked for the exhibition but thought I would just chance it anyway; and as it happened, I went straight in.

The exhibition was setup as different sections, with each being a different period of his portrait work, from the 1940’s to 2007. All of the portrait work on display were in black and white.

I found his earlier periods the most interesting out of the exhibition. Much of the work (especially around 1947-1948) was conducted in simplistic studio setups with very few props and simple lighting (The exhibition notes said that he used ‘tungsten’ lights as well as natural light); At most there was a Chair and some old plain carpet for much of this earlier work. Some of the images also had old thread and dirt scattered around the floors. I think the idea was to take the subject ‘out’ of their context and therefore concentrate you onto the subjects expressions and actions within the frames.

In some of this earlier work he had also used a narrow corner, with the subject in the apex of this confined space; I really enjoyed these and the way you were drawn into the image and focused onto each subject. The other notable thing about his earlier periods was that much (not all) of the photographs showed the subject more fully (head to toe) or not cropped in close.

In the 1950’s his work remained very simple but the frame appeared to be much closer on the faces with more head and shoulder framed images unlike the earlier work. There were some interesting framing on some of these; one that stuck in my mind was of the young Richard Burton. The frame cuts through his head and his hand almost dominated the image. Another photograph that stuck in my mind was that of Grace Kelly; Probably  to do with her contemporary beauty. In the 1960’s portrait work seemed to have stayed with the closer compositions, concentrating on face and expressions, I noticed in many of the portraits that the catch lights in the eyes appeared to be the reflections of windows. I could be mistaken, but that’s what it looked like to me.

The 1970’s onward he appeared to get closer still to the face and in more of them the lighting seemed to be harder, creating darker shadows.

I really enjoyed the exhibition but thought that the earlier work up to the 1960’s was much more interesting overall; I especially liked the work he did in 1947-1948 with the stark studio setups.