Home > Art History, Photography, Uncategorized > Art History: Irving Penn & Adversarial Portraits

Art History: Irving Penn & Adversarial Portraits

Like Yousuf Karsh, photographer Irving Penn [1917 – 2009] made portraits of many famous, historic and luminary personalities during his career.  Karsh used dramatic shadows influenced by Film noir while Penn preferred clear natural light.  His work made me think of how contemporary portraits as fine art can be a slippery slope; the photographer can be strongly influenced to make the most flattering image possible of the subject.  Penn was aware of this and not beholden to the opinion of the people he photographed:

In 1948 photographer Irving Penn built a pair of adjoining walls in his studio and began posing his subjects in that angle.  In shots from that year, Georgia O’Keefe stands stiff and skeptical, while Truman Capote, in an oversize coat, glares at the camera like a defiant child.  The space “brings with it the implications of being told to go stand in the corner,” says independent curator Peter Barberie.  “Penn was quite adversarial with his subjects,” he adds.  “For him, it was a contest of wills.”

Using simple backdrops and natural light, Penn forced his sitters to reveal themselves to the camera.  In several shots, subjects close their eyes, as if to deny Penn access to their inner selves.  Ingmar Bergman, in a 1964 portrait, presses his eyelids shut with his fingers; Picasso deflects Penn’s scrutiny with his upturned collar, over which he returns the photographer’s stare.

Rebecca Robertson, ARTnews February 2008

Marcel Duchamp by Irving Penn

Marlene Dietrich by Irving Penn

Pablo Picasso by Irving Penn

Simon de Beauvoir by Irving Penn, Paris, 1957

Salvador Dali by Irving Penn

Georgia O’Keeffe by Irving Penn, 1948

  1. February 11, 2012 at 9:49 am

    I like the look of his subjects being backed into a corner and being forced to stike back with their presence and confidence. Very unique approach. I don’t see that anywhere else.

    • February 11, 2012 at 10:17 am

      Irving Penn was really unique. I think of him as a forerunner to later photographers like Annie Leibovitz, who did portrait, artistic and fashion / commercial work.

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