When you ask a serious photographer today who’s work has been the most inspirational to them, a few names pop up so frequently that they become nearly cliché. For those who prefer a contemporary photographer, Annie Leibovitz seems to be the icon of choice, but for those with a preference for the previous era of portrait and fashion photographer, the doyens of the time seem to be Richard Avedon (1923-2004) or Irving Penn (1917-2009). I am certainly no historian of photography. I studied chemistry, not photography, so my formal education on the topic is nonexistent, but I have a growing interest in the historical roots of photography. Take what I say with a grain of salt, but even for a layperson such as myself, the influence of the work of Penn and Avedon on modern photography is undeniable, which is why the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current special exhibit, Irving Penn: Centennial, the most comprehensive exhibition of Penn’s work to date, is such a gift. For anyone who appreciates great photography, the Penn exhibit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The exhibit covers all aspects of Penn’s work, from his early photographs of street signs, to still life, portrait, and of course, fashion, where is work in Vogue launched him to fame. From the exhibit’s synopsis:
I have had the pleasure of seeing the exhibit twice so far. It is striking to notice how much influence, either consciously or subconsciously, he has had on modern photography. Whether or not Penn was the first to incorporate the various stylistic elements into his work that still show up today it is hard to say without a more complete historical background, but it seems like even if Penn’s photographs drew inspiration from other work, his notoriety and adoption of these concepts into such publicly visible and respected work make them mainstream and prevalent in the work of countless photographers going forward.
One of the iconic features of many of Penn’s photographs is his backdrop, which he used frequently in fashion work that appeared in Vogue and portraits of famous and influential people of the day. Penn likely wasn’t the first to use such a backdrop, but his use of it likely cemented the aesthetic into the culture of portrait photography in a way that makes canvas backdrops of that style sought after by countless photographers today.
You will hopefully recognize the use of canvas backdrops in my work, and recall a previous post I wrote about the making of the backdrops. There is something undeniably appealing about a simple textured background. It gives portraits a painterly quality that is more raw and authentic than a solid color, yet it still focuses the viewer’s eye on the subject by eliminating a messy or distracting background. Fortunately for us, the curators of the exhibit chose to display one of Penn’s iconic backdrops.
As a portrait photographer, the exhibit of Penn's work provides a fantastic opportunity to study what makes a great photograph. Penn's use of lines and shape in portraiture is impressive, and likely reflects his skills employed in his early career as a graphic designer as well as his passion for still life. The natural quality of light and the casual way in which the edges of the frames of images sometimes show pieces of the set gives his photos an authenticity to them that is too often missing from studio photography. Penn had a talent for putting people in an artificial environment and directing them to artificial poses yet somehow making the final image feel natural. This is a quality that I'm always striving to achieve in my own portraits.
Whether you’re in New York or would have to make a special trip, go see the exhibit before it closes at the end of July. I guarantee you'll love it, and hopefully you will learn a lot about what makes a great photograph. And if you don't get a chance to see it before it closes, I bought the book; so buy me coffee, I'll bring the book, and we can talk about what makes exceptional photography.
Have you already been? If so, what did you think, and what was your greatest takeaway from the exhibit? Leave a comment below and let's start a discussion.