Tribute to Irving Penn

Posted on November 17, 2011


There are three photographers who have had an influence on my style of black and white printing and photography.  They are Irving Penn, Barry Lategan and David Bailey.  Last year, through a writing competition, I won some tickets to see an Irving Penn Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London.  Those attending were to write a short appraisal of the exhibition for a further competition.  Alas, I didn’t win the final!

However, with Penn in mind, I decided to make a portrait of T4 presenter Sydney Jo Jackson in the style of the master.  This is my attempt below and by the way, it makes a very nice print framed in the style of the exhibition prints.  Just click here to see for yourself.  I chose the medium size for my own wall.

Sydney Jo Jackson in the style of Irving Penn

Sydney Jo Jackson in the style of Irving Penn

This was my final entry for the Daily Telegraph writing competition:

Finalist number two is John Hooton

The exhibition of Irving Penn’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery starts from 1944, with whole plate contact prints made directly from the negative without any enlargement. Penn began by using large format bellows cameras which are the perfect discipline to formulate technical finesse. Like his sitters, the photographer is detached from the camera, appraising with his eyes rather than through a viewfinder. Large format necessitated slow exposures. His subjects had to remain still and this is reflected in the watchful but fixed poses, some wedged between studio flats.

There is an artist’s roughness around the edges of his work. Backgrounds are dirty, the dull daylight from the studio roof is just adequate, and the expressions of his subjects are dispassionate. This is the essential Penn; his photographs are slightly off beat. He is not searching for the kind of perceived perfection that we are familiar with today, but strips the process to the bare fundamentals, extracting a raw depth from his sitters. He creates a timeless quality that is the key to lasting appeal.

In the mid fifties he began using roll film cameras. The new measured animation of his subjects is noticeable. He also tried tight cropping, cutting the tops of heads which was clearly an influence upon latter day photographers. The technical excellence of Penn’s work is still an enduring inspiration for photographers who strive for the perfect black and white print. Subtle changes throughout the tonal range; solid blacks that graduate to small white highlights.

His approach to photography was as sturdy as his wooden tripod. He was not seduced by the appeal of 35mm convenience, preferring the type of equipment where photography began.

His legacy to humanity as a photographic portrait authority has never been surpassed, both in merit and elegance.