Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Irving Penn

On Saturday I met my grandmother at the Morgan Library & Museum to see the Irving Penn exhibit, Close Encounters. The purpose of the exhibit is to show off their recent acquisition of a number of Penn's portraits of artists and writers.

The aesthetic is definitely minimalist. Nearly all of the portraits on display were shot in the studio and with little in the way of props of background. In some of the oldest portraits on display he uses a rug, draped in various ways, as the only prop. In later portraits he used movable walls to make a corner in his studio, photographing his subjects in the confined space. In these portraits there is a relationship between the subject and a specific, created environment. The character of the subject is displayed in their interaction with the artificial setting. And with multiple subjects in the same setting, fascinating differences emerge. Truman Capote, slouching in his corner and almost shrinking into his big coat projects an entirely different air than Tanaquil LeClerc, who stands over Balanchine et alia, looking out at the camera rather more forcefully than any of the men at her feet do.

In the later portraits on display Penn removes even the limited information provided by things like the corner and the carpet. We no longer see even the full body of the subject. Instead we get heads separated from any information we might get from body or setting. It's a method that emphasized the importance of small details and shines a rather unforgiving light on the frailties of human flesh. Pores and wrinkles and all the other imperfections are distinctly visible. In his portrait of Picasso the eye is drawn to the vertical wrinkles on his cheek, the sagging of age as it is framed by the block of hat and coat, and to the alert eye looking out at you, socket distinct, bushy old man's eyebrow rounding over it. And then we have the portrait of Perelman--a rather sad and tired look for a humorist where one can't help but notice the tie that's askew and the drooping, soft skin of his eyelids.

The thing that always interests me about portraits like these is that they give the impression of being ultra-realistic, and yet how often do we really look at people in this way? At least for me, the answer is, "not very." I remember studying my great-grandmother in the way I look at these portraits, sitting at her dining table watching her page through the scrabble dictionary and just trying to memorize the texture of her skin and slope of her soldiers under her cashmere cardigan. Penn's portraits force that level of observation on us and it's not natural--if it were we'd just spend all our time staring at people--but it is interesting. Observing someone so closely, and in such a seemingly simple setting, one feels like they know something about the subject, as though one is seeing them as they really are, stripped of artifice. But that's an illusion, of course. The view we're getting is mediated by the camera, the photographer, the subject him or herself. Photography is uniquely suited to creating this sort of mirage of unadulterated honesty and it seems to me that Penn's later portraits embody that.

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