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Irving Penn: Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, review

March 5, 2010

Truman Capote,  New York, 1948 by Irving Penn

Truman Capote, New York, 1948 by Irving Penn Photo: © THE IRVING PENN FOUNDATION

The ingredients were simple and constant. A roll of paper, two stage flats, a stool, a piece of carpet, a Rolleiflex camera, a tilt-all tripod. Yet somehow he never repeated himself.

He liked the daylight best, and spoke of its “sweetness… delicious beyond any other illumination”. He cajoled it, let it burrow into crinkled eyelid, tooth enamel, chin bristle, the liquid that settles in the corners of an eye socket.

It is not possible to have a meaningful discussion about portraiture without referring to Irving Penn. He photographed so many leading figures that he became a giant among them. Some 120 of his portraits are on show at the National Portrait Gallery. Half a century on, they are as electrifying as ever. “I must cut back on the work you do for Vogue,” his editor, Alexander Liberman, said. “They don’t like it. They say the photographs burn on the page.

All of Penn’s work takes the same approach: isolating subjects from their context and raising them to graphic perfection. He spoke of a need “to prune away anything inconsequential”. The NPG aspires to his neatness, with a single line of faces in chronological order, allowing us to appreciate the devices he used to elicit our responses. He was a master of such devices. The most obvious was the backdrop he began using from 1951, which joined two stage flats to create a narrow corner. Liberman likened it to the “tormenting isolation of Beckett” but Penn found “this confinement seemed to comfort people, soothing them. The walls were a surface to lean on or push against”.

Read more at: Irving Penn: Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

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