Irving Penn once said that his formula for a meaningful portrait was to photograph his subjects over several hours, until they let down their guard. This dedication to his art is perhaps why he is considered one of the finest portraitists of the 20th century. He shot everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Picasso, often homing in on the face in an attempt to reveal the interior life of his subjects. As the curator Magdalen Keaney says, ‘A Penn portrait never feels like it has been taken in a rush. There’s no element of surprise or being caught off guard in his pictures.’
Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, the son of a watchmaker and a nurse, Penn studied design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art under the legendary designer Alexey Brodovitch. It was Brodovitch who introduced the young Penn to Vogue’s art director Alexander Liberman in 1946, beginning a relationship with the magazine that lasted a lifetime. He took portraits of Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich and the Duchess of Windsor, defying existing conventions for portrait photography by wedging his sitters into corners, seating them on shabby carpets or doing away with props altogether, simply photographing them against a white wall.
His aesthetic was relatively simple, but seemed revolutionary in the 1940s: low-key lighting, plain background and a direct focus on the sitter. It is perhaps best exemplified by a head-and-shoulders shot of Alberto Giacometti taken in 1950, depicting the great sculptor, hands hidden in the folds of his jacket, staring with an austere intensity. Penn explained his approach by saying, ‘In portrait photography there is something more profound we seek inside a person, while being painfully aware that a limitation of our medium is that the inside is recordable only so far as it is apparent on the outside.’ Penn died in 2009, yet the quiet power of those minimal portraits continues to have a profound influence on photographers today.
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