Irving Penn: Unpretentious Perfection

“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 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.




~ by eaesthete on 02/04/10.

9 Responses to “Irving Penn: Unpretentious Perfection”

  1. Chère Suzanne:

    After a few busy days I thought I would drop in for a few minutes to get caught up on the EA, only to find three magnificent posts. What a collection of photographs! (Not to slight Picasso’s portrait.) Had I known earlier, I could have devoted more of my evening to aesthetics rather than to cocktail blogging (although the research required for cocktail blogging has its own rewards). Thank you for this fine collection.

    Mais pourquoi est-ce que la photo de « Giselle Bundchen » s’intitule « moss » ?


    • Jim,

      You must have fancied that photo enough to make it your own. Initially, I thought it was Kate Moss, who Penn also photographed in the nude. Thanks for pointing that out. Correction underway.

  2. I’ve never seen the image here of the Duchess of Windsor, but I have to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen of her. So often viewed as a dilletante who stole a king away from his empire, she shows a kind of quiet dignity here. I wonder what was the truth, supreme social climber or stalwart mate? Maybe both.

  3. Thank you EA – sometimes it takes an outside (the country) mind to show one what’s going on in one’s own (country). I shall book at once and turn up early with a smile as my guest.

    As usual, you have a great set of eyes, wouldn’t surprise me if you were once on an art department somewhere special.

    Incidentally, I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen the shot Penn took of Alexander Lieberman (and his considerable moustache) ? I saw it in one of his books a few years ago and I’ve been after it ever since – not even the great google seems to have it.

    • Jimjam,

      I so envy your geographic proximity to what I imagine will be a wondrous day. I adore this man’s work and ear they would have to physically remove me from the premises at closing time. Do report back, however, since I’d love to hear the details.

      I don’t recall seeing the photo you describe where I suspect, based on your comment about his mustache, it was a CU (closeup) of him. There is a photo of he, his wife and daughter taken by Penn that accompanied a review of “Them: A Memoir of Parents,” by the daughter, Francine du Plessix Gray, that can be found here.

      Perhaps another resourceful reader will turn it up.

  4. Thank you for this post! Fabulous portraits…

  5. i think above all he was a great artist. thank you for sharing…

  6. Photography. def: drawing with light. Was there ever a greater exponent of the art? Thanks for the inspiration.

  7. […] Update 2: More on Penns work (including more pictures) from Errant Aesthete […]

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