Irving Penn print of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti
Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is the one they would like to show the world… Very often what lies behind the façade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe.
Last April, I went to the Irving Penn exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London while I was there visiting my friend Gabriella. This print was one of Penn’s many silver gelatin portrait prints featured in the exhibit. The entire exhibit moved me, and I must say that I can’t wait until the next time I have an opportunity to see a Penn exhibition. Penn had the privilege of shooting portraits of famous artists like Picasso, Al Pacino, Salvador Dali, Hitchcock, Nicole Kidman, John Updike, Duke Ellington, Ingemar Bergman, Gael García Bernal, Yves Saint Laurent, Grace Kelly, and Truman Capote, amongst many others. But, it is not so much the subject that is what is most important in Penn’s images, but the subject and photographer relationship.
Penn’s portraits are all black and white, some silver gelatin prints, some platinum prints, that utilized very harsh lighting, and very high detail large format film to provide an extremely intimate and emotional feel. His control of depth of field is very obvious, as many photos are so precisely in focus that it’s hard to fathom how much time he must have spent with a tape measure setting up each shot. His lighting techniques utilized ambient sunlight, as well as artificial tungsten lights, to provide hard shadows that— when combined with his expert compositions— create dramatic feeling and depth in every photo.
Penn’s compositions are very unique, and a huge aspect of his photos. He used dirty studios, gritty subjects, and discolored foregrounds and backdrops to give his subjects very real feel. Flaws are what make humans human. If you’ve ever seen an airbrushed film or photo, or seen an image that looked too perfect and not real enough, then you understand that it is humankind’s shortcomings and less polished side that makes us so complex and interesting. Penn embraced the depth, quiet, emotion, and and calm of his subjects in order to show who they were, in order to convey them to the viewer with the most dramatic of effect. There are so many of his photos that use a stark, deep gaze from his subject; every time I looked into the eyes of one of them, I felt as if I was sitting face to face with the subject, speaking with them about their life and stories and experiences.
The photographer can be technically perfect (as was Penn in so many cases); and the subject can be beautiful (Audrey Hepburn or Marlene Dietrich), talented (Hitchcock or Stravinsky), or enigmatic (Dali or Jacques Cousteau); but it was the relationship that Penn had with them that allowed the subject to settle into the atmosphere and bear their soul through a moment of frozen time, filled with emotion and feeling. Every single line, every single crease, every single part of that person’s being manifested in their skin, hair, expression, and pose, was captured by Penn’s lens.
If the opportunity ever comes up for you to go see a Penn exhibit, do not hesitate to spend the better part of the day appreciating his work.