I love Irving Penn!
A little while ago I went to an exhibition of Irving Penn's photos at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Somehow I'd seen just about none of his stuff before and I was totally blown away. I've become a massive fan ever since!
For a start, the finish of his photos is incredible. He was the ultimate perfectionist in everything including printing. Apparently he spent hours and hours applying 'platinum palladium' coatings to his photographs (hope I've not got that wrong!). The end result is pictures that almost seem 3D! The portraits just sort of loom off the page - the close up ones are even quite scary!
He died at 92 in 2009 and had spent years shooting famous cultural figures, from writers to actors to royals to sportsmen to painters. His portraits are so compelling and really seem to capture something truthful about the subject.
But I love it because he kind of manages this whilst also being really strict and hands on with the posing, the light and so on. There are lots of geometric shapes and clean, minimalist compositions. I've rarely seen pictures of people that are so 'managed' and fine tuned, but at the same time contain strong glimpses of real personality.
The Irving Penn pictures I've been looking at were all taken in his studio. He used really plain backgrounds - everything seems to be pared back. The light is often interesting with lots of shadowy areas. He puts his subjects in this context and kind of treats their bodies like still life objects. It makes for visually strong photos that are quite classically composed.
I think Penn's perfectionism in all this kind of somehow forces the humanity to show itself in his subjects. It's like everything is so neat and ordered and perfect, that eventually the sitter (or sometimes stander!) can't conform to the ideal of visual perfection and shows something from behind the mask that Penn pounces on and makes a brilliant photo of.
He once said: 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."
I think he liked his subjects and that comes through in his work. I really can't recommend checking out Irving Penn's photos enough. He's just absolutely great - so go look at them now!