Irving Penn: Unpretentious Perfection
faced with the prospect
of a camera portrait
put on a face
they think is one
they would like
to show the world…
what lies behind the facade
is rare and more wonderful
than the subject knows
or dares to believe.”
Irving Penn, 1975
While the gloom of winter sets most in various postures of hibernation, this is truly the season of exhibitionism — from the catwalks of Paris to the galleries of New York. Yet if this aesthete could choose one exhibit to witness, explore, study and tuck away in the long remembered, it would be the ambitiously curated exhibit of famed photographer, Irving Penn Portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, running 18 February through 6 June 2010.
Irving Penn put Marcel Duchamp in a corner, exposed Colette’s forehead and swaddled Rudolf Nureyev’s lithe body in layers of winter clothing. His subjects, who included many of the greatest creative talents of the 20th century, emerged from their portrait sessions with their carefully shaped personas profoundly shaken. Mr. Penn died on Oct. 7, 2009; he was 92. “RIP: Penn, The Grand Master,”
A courtly man whose gentle demeanor masked an intense perfectionism, Penn adopted the pose of a humble craftsman while helping to shape a field known for putting on airs.
Penn was a purist who mistrusted perfect beauty, which brought an engaging tension to his fashion photographs as well as his still lifes and portraits.
One of his best-known shots for Vogue in the 1950s shows an impeccably dressed model glancing sideways through a veil that covers her face, as if she wasn’t ready for her close-up. Lavish textures, the rich shadow and light became Penn’s trademark.
“What Penn does with an honesty that few of his peers can muster, is remind us that a body, rounded and grounded, is one of the more enthralling objects on earth,” Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker magazine in 2002.
What brought life to those portraits came from the people he photographed. Subtly, he captured human evanescence.
The results were what counted, Penn’s longtime boss at Vogue, Alexander Lieberman, told Vanity Fair. “A Penn photograph,” he said, “will always be a great photograph.”
“His very presence in the magazine each month is both humbling and ennobling for his younger colleagues,” Anna Wintour, the magazine’s editor, wrote in the July 2007 issue that honored Penn at 90.
The exhibition focusing specifically on Penn’s portraits of major cultural figures of the last seven decades, Irving Penn Portraits is a glorious celebration of his work in this genre.
The exhibition is brought together from major international collections and includes over 120 silver and platinum prints, many vintage, ranging from his portraits for Vogue magazine in the 1940s to some of his last work.
Penn photographed an extraordinary range of sitters from the worlds of literature, music and the visual and performing arts. Among those featured in the exhibition are Truman Capote, Salvador Dali, Christian Dior, T.S. Eliot, Duke Ellington, Grace Kelly, Rudolf Nureyev, Al Pacino, Edith Piaf, Pablo Picasso and Harold Pinter.
The exhibition will tour to Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome from 1 July to 19 September 2010. For the justifiably enthralled, you can reserve your own little piece of heaven right here. Book Online
Photos: Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), New York, 1950
The Irving Penn Foundation © Condé Nast Publications, Inc.
Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1948, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Irving Penn
Cecil Beaton with Nude, New York, 1946, Irving Penn Foundation
Duchess of Windsor, New York, 1948, Irving Penn Foundation
Giselle Bundchen, 1999, Irving Penn Foundation
Model, Vogue, New York, Irving Penn Foundation
Alfred Hitchcock, New York, 1947, Condé Nast Publications, Inc.
Al Pacino, New York, 1995, The Irving Penn Foundation
Collette, Paris, 1951 Irving Penn/Conde Nast Publications
Jean Cocteau, Paris, 1948, Irving Penn/ Conde Nast Publications
Barnett Newman, New York, 1966
S.J. Perelman, New York,1962, Conde Nast Publications
Ingmar Bergman by Irving Penn, Condé Nast Publications, Inc.
Yves St. Laurent by Irving Penn, Conde Nast Publications, Inc.