‘A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.’
These famous words, uttered by Irving Penn himself, pretty much sum up the experience of the Irving Penn: Portraits major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Running until 6 June, this landmark offering marks one of fashion’s greatest photographers’ passing in October of last year, and is the first exhibition of his work in the UK for 25 years.
Here are a few reasons why you should see this restrospective of one of the world’s greatest photographers:
Celebrate a master
In the 1940s when Penn began his career shooting for Vogue magazine, opulent interiors and lavish settings were de rigeur for these magazines. Penn shook things up with his minimal, austere settings (often in stark studios with floors covered in fag butts). It was this style that he is most famous for, and which has influenced countless artists and photographers since.
Marvel at unique composition
While many photographers employed narratives in their work, removing personal elements, Penn’s focus was on keeping settings neutral and resisting these storytelling fantasies. His were studies of the face; he rarely photographed his subjects at full length, often severely chopping off the tops of heads with his crop. This was extraordinary at the time, and looking at these timeless images now, it still is. Glancing at the iconic portrait of his wife Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn in her harlequin number and then looking at a contemporary portrait of Nicole Kidman from as little ago as 2003, it is only by recognition of the subjects that we can differentiate the era; the ageless elegance of these photographs is truly astonishing.
See REAL celebrities
Penn was one of the few photographers who documented the stars of the 1940s and 1950s, and in an age where getting your tits out on TV makes you a celebrity, be delighted amongst the faces of those with endurable star quality and immeasurable talent - Rudolph Nureyev, Edith Piaf, Elsa Schiaparelli, Marlene Dietrich and Cecil Beaton to name a few.
Revel at the beauty of gelatin prints
All of Penn’s prints use the vintage silver gelatin process, which gives uncompromising quality and incredible contrast. Looking at the photographs makes a recent batch of DSLR prints I paid a fortune for look like a bad job by Snappy Snaps.
For more information or to book tickets, click here.
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