Popped into the Irvin Penn exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery a couple of weeks ago. What a fitting tribute to one of the worlds greatest photographers. The exhibition itself is hung in the manner of its maker: a simple string of black and white photographs framed in pale grey, mounted on a crisp white wall. Penn’s career panned over 7 decades, from his early portrait work in the 40s, to Vogue in the 60s and Vanity Fair in the 80s.
The images are stripped back, shot in an environment devoid of luxuries and textures, just the scatter of cigarette butts can be seen on the floor. Fashion royalty Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent sit, looking slightly nervous, both cropped to the trademark simple head-and-shoulders shot. Looking at these images, you can see why he was known as the Emperor of understated glamour. It was all about the details, a hood and deep shadow concealing half the face of Issy Miyake, the study of Truman Capotes face, without his glasses, eyes closed, pensive, or Dali, sitting powerfully, hands anchored on his knees, staring into the lens. The images are enduring and have since influenced countless photographers. They are best described as just beautiful.
“Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is 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.”