Irving Penn was one of the most prolific photographers working in the 20th century (and into the 21st, before his death at age 92 in 2009): his simple portraits of famous figures were spare but playful, capturing the personality behind the celebrity. His signature look was a studio shot rendered in monochrome, against an austere backdrop with subtle lighting and a “choreography of pose and gesture that hints at the interior life of the subject.” Following an edited series displayed at the Getty Museum in LA, Penn gets the full retrospective treatment with a solo exhibition of portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Image gallery and recap after the jump.
A partial list of portrait subjects included in the exhibition: John Cage, Zaha Hadid, Jasper Johns, Alberto Giacometti, Truman Capote (above), Gael Garcia Bernal, Pablo Picasso, Carson McCullers, Grace Kelly, Phillip Johnson, Jacques Cousteau, John Updike, Anais Nin, Woody Allen (as Charlie Chaplin), Issey Miyake, Duke Ellington, Susan Sontag, and Harold Pinter.
An Irving Penn Primer
1917: Born in Plainfield, New Jersey.
1934-38: Majored in design at Museum School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia, now the University of the Arts.
1937-38: Spent two summers interning at Harper’s Bazaar in the art department; proceeds from several of Penn’s drawings published by the magazine funded the purchase of his signature camera, a Rolleiflex.
1940-41: Stint as a commercial artist for Saks Fifth Avenue.
1943: Hired at Vogue. In October he shot his first cover, also his first color photo and the first still-life cover in the history of the magazine.
1944: Joined the volunteer American Field Service as an ambulance driver and photographer.
1954: Opened his own independent studio on West 40th Street following the close of Vogue‘s studio three years previous.
1964: Began printing in platinum metals.
1975: Began shooting ad campaigns for cerebral fashion designer Issey Miyake.
1984: MoMA in New York mounted Irving Penn, a retrospective of 168 photographs, and published an accompanying book written by curator John Szarkowski.
2004: Penn shot Nicole Kidman for the cover of Vogue, his first for the magazine in fifteen years.
2009: Dies on October 7 in New York City.
More info on “Portraits” by Irving Penn, up through June 6, at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition page.