Thursday 1 April 2010

The Penn treatment

lrving Penn Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London

We all know that the camera can lie, but this doesn’t stop photographers from trying to show the truth about who or what is in front of the lens. This is what celebrity snapper Irving Penn, who died last year, tried to do with his work. This exhibition of his portraits of leading figures from the words of literature, music and the visual and performing arts gives us a chance to evaluate his attempt.

But before we can do this, we must ask whether a new approach to photography for the sake of capturing a closer perception of its subject-matter - celebrities - was Penn’s prime motivation. Arguably, it wasn’t. Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1917, Penn began his career in the 1940s working for Vogue magazine in NewYork. For a photographer, this would have been the equivalentof an actor starting hisor her career with a major Hollywood studio. With such a prestigious beginning, he had a lot to live up to. Perhaps being thrown into the deep end may have been the unconscious - or not so unconscious - motivation for Penn to look for a new, pared-down way of photographing the movers and shakers from the arts and showbiz: as a new kid on the block he had to make his mark against the established snappers. But,whatever Penn’s motivation may have been in doing this, how good were the finished products? What is outstanding here?

In 1947 and 1948 Penn made a new stylistic shift from hitherto established approaches to portrait photography. Heused astudiothat was almostempty savefor the simplest props whilst using a band of tungsten light to simulate daylight. This was in contrast to the set piece, sometimes rather camp offerings of star photographers like Cecil Beaton.

So we see Penn showing the painter Giorgiode Chirico (1944) with leaves over his head, his expression a combination of surprise and, perhaps, a feeling that he was worthy of better things than being photographed in a gimmicky way like this. A group portrait of Vogue photographers and Dorian Leigh (1946) shows Beaton with a camp-heroic stance staring into the distance whilst the rest of the photographers (plus Leigh, a model) look on with either seeming indifference or a sneery expectancy as if they’re challenging Penn, the youngster behind the camera, to show what he can do. Alfred Hitchcock (1947) is shown in an almost lavatorial squat, yet has an expression registering not so much surprise as boredom, as if being pictured in this way is nothing special but all in a day’s work. In the same year actor Peter Ustinov is shown with a quizzical expression as he looks up from the floor on which he is twirling whilst Truman Capote (1948) kneels on a chair looking as if he wants to hide himself in the overcoat which almost envelops him, yet knows that he’s being snapped because of his fame. In the same year the Duchess of Windsor is caught in a v-shaped intersection between two walls, giving the impression of being angered at finding herself trapped whilst being prepared to fight her ground against all comers. Also in 1948, Marlene Dietrich is shown giving the impression of being surprised and, if the photograph is meant to give a feeling of informality, it also manages to capture a sense of youthfulness normally overlaid by the studio lighting which she usually supervised in her films to give her an appearance of cast-iron beauty.

From the late 1940s, Penn started to concentrate on showing his sitters from the waist up. We see a 1950 photograph of TS Eliot, his face contorting with what seems like restrained anger whilst novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett (1958) screws up her face like a prize fighter squaring-up to confront an opponent in the ring. A look of woeful warning on the face of comic writer SJ Perelman (1962) says that humour is a serious business whilst a laughing John Updike (1970) is possibly amused by what he portrays in his role as a chronicler of American suburbia. The photo of model Carmen Dell’Orefice (1985) shows her with dishevelled hair but, as with Dietrich, the attempt to show her almost at a disadvantage rebounds, for the model’s hair acts as a perfect surround for her aquiline features. Meanwhile a resigned-looking Zaha Hadid (1985) seems to be spoiling for another fight with the architectural establishment. Agroup photograph of the artists Ellsworth Kelly, Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland (2002) shows them as the grand old men of the avant-garde arts Establishment, self-assured of their social position with Kelly having an almost aristocratic hauteur.

The approach to photography pioneered by Penn became an established one. However, it’s not without its problems. For a start the sitters were posed, just as were the subjects of the more traditional photographs taken by Beaton and others. Knowledge of this alerts us to be on the look-out for any expression that might be faked. We also know that the subject-matter of these photographs consists of people who are special, have done something to merit Penn going to the time and trouble of photographing them. His sort of pictures don’t fully challenge the nature of celebrity. Today, the only ones which convey some sense of the common-or-garden humanity of celebrities are those which appear in celebrity magazines showing them caught off-guard performing banausic tasks like shopping or filling-up the car at the gas station. And, given the fact that celebrities have an army of image-consultants to draw upon for help in presenting the right image, the task of the photographer who wants to get under the skin of a ‘sleb’ is not an easy one. Some celebrities can even embrace their status whilst seeming to reject it: pop singer Lady Gaga, whilst wanting all her fans to share her fame, never appears as less-than-ready for the paparazzi.

But does this mean that Penn’s photographs are without merit? By no means. Although they are posing, the people shown do reveal aspects of their personalities which they feel they should play up for the benefit of the public but which might not tell all the truth (for instance, we see the eyes of dancer Josephine Baker, photographed in 1964, smile from behind feathers and this makes us wonder what, with her years of Parisian fame behind her, she is still able to smile about). Also they make us consider the problems faced by the media today when trying to get behind the image offered by public figures for public consumption. So Penn’s pictures manage to deliver both less and more than they show. Most important of all, however, they remind us of an era when celebrity was conferred on solid achievement rather than on the ability to rise without trace. Arguably few modern synthetic celebrities deserve - or could survive the effects of - the Penn treatment today.

Till 6 June 2010

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