Irving Penn & A Positive View

Irving Penn exhibition at the National Portrait gallery was very interesting.   The exhibition showed his work throughout his whole life, in chronological order.  

The first thing to strike me was the fact that his style never moved much throughout his whole life.   He worked in black and white, had a minimalist studio and focused on capturing the person through their expressions and posture.

Initially, he tackled the portraits with the subjects full body framed in the shot.   The persons character was mainly portrayed through their body language.   At the time he shot both celebrities and also many of the poorer folk from the city.   His work was consistent, but somehow each photo is both similar and unique at the same time.

As he progressed he moved in closer and closer to the faces of the sitters.   This allowed much more character to come through.   He said in a quote that he would sit the person down, start chatting with them and take a few snaps to try to start a bit of dialogue.   In this time, he would be deciding what kind of attitude he wanted to capture for the particular sitter.   He would then start shooting and would try out many different poses and gestures and would progressively move towards capturing this chosen attitude for the person.   

This was a real insight for me since I've never shot any formal portraits.   The idea of figuring out a persons attitude and then working towards capturing it is a very interesting idea which opens up the mystery of good portrait work for me.

All of his shots definitely had an indescribable quality of something more that just the shot.   His work was impressive, coherent and worth spending time looking over.   Each portrait captured a mood of the sitter and had something more than most portraits I've seen.

Here's some quotes:

'I invite the subject to the camera, I begin to search for an attitude, and then begin to expose film.   I follow my plan through to what may be a dead end or to success....   I have found that for me it is fatal to change directions radically in the middle of a sitting.   I lose the subject.'

'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 in so far as it is apparent on the outside.'


I also went to Somerset House to see the exhibition, 'A Positive View'.   This was much less coherent and more of a mishmash of different photos.   There are some exceptional work in there but also a lot of less impressive work.   There were some stand out images from Henri Cartier-Bresson to be seen but I left a bit confused as to the point, other than showing a wide range of photos.