How Penn's camera stole celebrity souls

He was the son of a Jewish watchmaker who created iconic images of the most famous figures in the arts

By John Belknap, March 11, 2010
Nicole Kidman, photographed by Penn in New York, in 2003. His subjects included Picasso, Stravinsky, Marlene Dietrich and T S Eliot

Nicole Kidman, photographed by Penn in New York, in 2003. His subjects included Picasso, Stravinsky, Marlene Dietrich and T S Eliot

Irving Penn's career lasted 60 years. But his photographs will last forever.

The National Portrait Gallery is currently showing Penn's
pictures commissioned by Vogue magazine from 1947-2007. Given the ephemeral nature of magazines, it is a mark of distinction that his photographs are still as fresh and moving as they were the day they were taken. (How many pictures from this week's Hello! do you think will be exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in 2070?)

The Vogue portraits are an expression of pure elegance. Their black and white formality finds the dignity in each subject and lets it shine. From 1947 to 2007, Penn, who died last year, searched for, and found, the essence of the people he photographed.

Reflecting on his work, he said: "Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is the one they'd like to show the world. Very often what lies behind the façade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe." It was revealing that behind-the-scenes face that was Penn's particular talent. He had a respect and empathy for his subjects, and they responded to allow him to see a glimpse into their personality.

Irving Penn was born in June 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey. His father was a watchmaker, his mother a nurse. Having finished school he moved to New York in the late '30s, bought a camera and began photographing Manhattan shop fronts. He found freelance work with Harper's Bazaar magazine, but he soon decamped to Mexico to pursue his ambition to be an artist.

Returning to New York, his painting career abandoned, he accepted the offer of a job at Vogue as the assistant to the art director, a Russian emigré called Alexander Liberman. So began his long association with the publication.

Oddly for fashion magazine photos, Penn's portraits are stripped clean of the ornate or cluttered props that were popular back in the 1940s and, later, of any background at all. During the many decades he contributed to Vogue, the only format change he made was to get a bit closer to his subjects.

The background starts as a studio, with a claustrophobic corner for his subjects to either skulk in or emerge triumphantly from, depending on their personality and mood. Truman Capote shyly kneels submerged in a huge coat, while the Duchess of Windsor glares out indomitably. Alfred Hitchcock slumps on a pile of carpet, while Max Ernst and Dorothea Tannings make the same carpet look exotic and chic.

In the Portrait Gallery exhibition there is one group photo of the two hottest bands of 1967, Big Brother and the Holding Company - with Janis Joplin as lead singer - and the Grateful Dead. They were each famous for drug-induced anarchy but in Penn's studio they are as calm and dignified as Greek statues.

John Szarkowski, former director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote that in these pictures there was "no environment at all, only a wordless conversation between the photographer and the sitter. If both principals are alert, and willing to accept the risk of humiliating failure, and if they are lucky, the collaboration may produce a picture that seems to touch the subject's soul."

Most of Penn's subjects in this collection were in the arts: Duke Ellington, Igor Stravinsky, Marlene Dietrich, Leonard Bernstein, Edith Piaf, Audrey Hepburn, T S Eliot, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Pablo Picasso - a who's who of 20th-century culture. But Penn also focused on the less famous. There is a photo of a group of ballet dancers including men who look knowingly gay. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be gay in the macho post-war '40s? These are formidable personalities, and Penn celebrates them all.

Photographer Garry Winogrand, who specialised in quick and odd street shots, once claimed that all good photographers were Jewish. He makes a good case, as his list stretched from Man Ray to Richard Avedon to Annie Leibovitz. His criteria was that the pictures were unsettled and raw, because the "Jewish Eye" was an outsider's eye.

But Penn, while Jewish, did not have an outsider's eye. He was the ultimate insider. He got himself and his lens behind his subjects' façades, without judgement and with affection, and encouraged them to reveal themselves. While each person looks vulnerable and mortal, the results are immortal.

Irving Penn Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 until June 6

Last updated: 11:21am, March 11 2010