A major photographic exhibition Irving Penn Portraits will open at the National Portrait Gallery
in February 2010. Devoted to one of the greatest photographers of his generation who died earlier this month, the exhibition will include over 120 prints from Penn's seven-decade career ranging from his early portraits for Vogue in 1944 to some of his last work.
The exhibition is a survey of Penn's portraits of major cultural figures brought together from many international collections. Portraits include Truman Capote, Salvador Dalì, Marlene Dietrich, Christian Dior, T.S. Eliot, Duke Ellington, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicole Kidman, Willem de Kooning, Jessye Norman, Rudolph Nureyev, Edith Piaf, Pablo Picasso, Harold Pinter, Igor Stravinsky, and Tennessee Williams.
Irving Penn began his career as a photographer in the 1940s working for Vogue in New York. In 1947 and 1948 he made a series of portraits which were a groundbreaking stylistic shift from existing conventions of portrait photography. In contrast to his contemporaries, who often used complex or dramatic sets or showed sitters in their working environments, Penn worked in a studio that was almost empty. He used a band of tungsten light to simulate daylight and only the simplest props. In some cases his sitters leaned against a length of carpet covering a solid base and in other images the subjects stood in a composed corner. These basic studio settings provided opportunities for performance and self-expression, notably shown in the exhibition in portraits of Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning (1947) or Truman Capote (1948).
From the 1950s Penn began to photograph many of his subjects close up, rarely showing a sitter from below the waist. Included in the portraits from this period is Penn's iconic image of Pablo Picasso (1957), half of the artist's face is in the shadows of a wide-brimmed hat and the folds of a dark overcoat, leaving a single eye to radiate from the centre of the image. Penn was gradually eliminating the visible framework of the studio, resulting in a greater emphasis on the gesture and expression of the sitter for which he is well known.
Penn's portraits since the 1960s are significantly different from the full-length portraits made earlier in his career. There are fewer changes in his pictorial style over the following fifty years than there were in the few years leading to the breakthrough of the 1940s as Penn moves into more intense head and shoulder studies. Later exhibits include his reflective portraits of Ingmar Bergman (1964) Arthur Miller (1983) and Louise Bourgeois (1992) with their eyes closed, cartoonist Saul Steinberg in nose mask (1966) and Woody Allen in disguise as Charlie Chaplin (1972).
Also on show will be some of Penn's celebrated group portraits including the 1967 photograph Rock Groups, which captures Janis Joplin and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, alongside the Grateful Dead, and his photograph of Ellsworth Kelly, Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland (2002). Penn continued producing portraits well into the twenty first century and the most recent featured in the exhibition is artist Julian Schnabel (2007). The exhibition will include numerous previously unpublished or exhibited portraits including an intriguing early portrait of photographer Cecil Beaton with nude (1946), writer Harold Pinter (1962), and the painter, Lee Krasner (1972).
Penn's work rapidly became part of the canon of photographic history. Within a few years of their making his photographs were seen on the walls of public galleries and museums; the first touring exhibition that included his work was organised by the Museum of Modern Art in 1949. A marker of both quality and innovation, Penn's visual language has been assimilated by a wide range of photographers and designers across generations. What was new for him has established the conventions for others.
Irving Penn was born in 1917, in Plainfield, New Jersey. In a career of more than sixty years, he created an extensive and influential body of photographs in portraiture, fashion and still life. His work resides in the permanent collections of major museums internationally and has been published in over twenty-five monographs and exhibited throughout the world. Irving Penn passed away on 7 October 2009 at his home in Manhattan.
The exhibition is curated by Magdalene Keaney, Associate Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery.