Irving Penn

There hasn’t been a major UK exhibition of the work of Irving Penn for more than two decades. A scandal, considering the man was at the very forefront of 20th century photography.

I’m delighted to report that Irving Penn Portraits which is showing at the National Portrait Gallery until June this year redresses the balance. For this is a  show that is not only devoted to one of the greatest photographers of his generation but also shows how he remained creative, radical and committed until the very end.

The exhibition includes  over 120 prints from Penn's seven-decade career ranging from his early portraits for Vogue in 1944 to some of his final pictures. 

It is a survey of Penn's portraits of major cultural figures brought together from a variety of international collections. Portraits include Truman Capote, Salvador Dalì, Marlene Dietrich, Christian Dior, T.S. Eliot, Duke Ellington, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicole Kidman, Willem de Kooning, Jessye Norman, Rudolf Nureyev, Edith Piaf, Pablo Picasso, Harold Pinter, Igor Stravinsky and Tennessee Williams.

Penn began his career as a photographer in the 1940s working for Vogue in New York. In 1947 and 1948 he made a series of portraits which were a groundbreaking stylistic shift from existing conventions of portrait photography. In contrast to his contemporaries, who often used complex or dramatic sets or showed sitters in their working environments, Penn worked in a studio that was almost empty. He used a band of tungsten light to simulate daylight and only the simplest props. In some cases his sitters leaned against a length of carpet covering a solid base and in other images the subjects stood in a bare corner of his studio. These basic studio settings provided opportunities for performance and self-expression, notably in portraits of Wallace Simpson, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning and Truman Capote .

From the 1950s Penn began to photograph many of his subjects close-up, rarely showing a sitter from below the waist. These drastic crops include the iconic 1957 study of Pablo Picasso in which half of the artist's face is in the shadows of a wide-brimmed hat and the folds of a dark overcoat, leaving a single eye to radiate from the centre of the image. 

Penn was gradually eliminating the visible framework of the studio. The result was a greater emphasis on the gesture and expression of the sitter - a move which not only made him well known but also came to epitomise his later portraiture.

Penn's portraits since the 1960s are significantly different from the full-length portraits that he habitually made earlier in his career. There are fewer changes in his pictorial style in the later years, with Penn moving into more intense head and shoulder studies. 

Among the later exhibits are his reflective portraits of Ingmar Bergman (1964) Arthur Miller (1983) and Louise Bourgeois (1992) with their eyes closed, cartoonist Saul Steinberg in nose mask (1966) and Woody Allen in disguise as Charlie Chaplin (1972).

Also on show will be some of Penn's celebrated group portraits including the 1967 photograph Rock Groups, which captures Janis Joplin and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, alongside the Grateful Dead. Young and healthy, they  look as though they’ve been let loose on the dressing-up box. Thy may not be social revolutionaries, but  they are definitely of the moment.

Another is his 2002 study of some of the grizzled veterans of  contemporary art featuring Ellsworth Kelly, Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland. It’s scary. They were pioneers and will always be young men to me. 

Penn continued producing portraits well into the twenty first century and the most recent featured in the exhibition is artist Julian Schnabel (2007). The exhibition includes many previously unpublished portraits including an intriguing early study  of photographer Cecil Beaton with nude (1946), writer Harold Pinter (1962), and the painter, Lee Krasner (1972).

Penn's work rapidly became part of the canon of photographic history. Within a few years of their making his photographs were seen on the walls of public galleries and museums; the first touring exhibition that included his work was organised by the Museum of Modern Art in 1949. A marker of both quality and innovation, Penn's visual language has been assimilated by a wide range of photographers and designers across generations. What was new for him has established the conventions for others.

Irving Penn was born in 1917, in Plainfield, New Jersey. In a career of more than sixty years, he created an extensive and influential body of photographs in portraiture, fashion and still life. His work resides in the permanent collections of major museums internationally and has been published in over twenty-five monographs and exhibited throughout the world. Irving Penn died  on 7 October 2009 at his home in Manhattan.

The exhibition is curated by Magdalene Keaney, Associate Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery.

*This show is the first Irving Penn museum exhibition in the UK for 20 years, the largest ever UK exhibition devoted to Penn's portraiture and Includes previously unexhibited portraits of Lee Krasner, Edith Piaf, Harold Pinter and Cecil Beaton. It runs until June 6. 

© Jeremy Miles 2022