Photography – A Beginner’s Guide – Portrait Photography [Irving Penn] – An article by Goff James

Welcome followers and visitors to my blog and another update in my photography Beginner’s Guide to Photography.

This week I will be continuing to look at Portrait Photography and looking at an image by Irving Penn.

As I have stated in previous articles one can learn so much about photography by looking at; and, talking about other photographers’ work.

Portrait Photography may be defined as;

  • simply creating a likeness of a person, especially of the face.
  • a good quality image that not only captures a person’s physical likeness but also something of the person’s character, generally in a manner that is attractive and pleasing to the subject.

  • simply the depiction of an individual
  • recording the physical form and features of the portrait sitter including characterisation, personal context, possible relationships and often a connection with that persons life, lifestyle and work.
  • conveying a very real and intense sense of the sitters personality, their interests and personal environment.

  • an image depicting only the face or head and shoulders of a subject.

  • being more than just a visual record that is used to show the power, importance, virtue, beauty, wealth, taste, learning or other qualities of the sitter.

  • capturing the personality of a subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses.
  • being an image of a subject that may be artistic or clinical as part of a medical study.
  • the commissioning of images for special occasions, such as weddings or school events.
  • serving many purposes, from usage on a personal web site to display in the lobby of a business.

A. Johnson

A true portrait should, today and a hundred years from today, be the testimony of how this person looked and what kind of human being he was.”

Philippe Halsman

Irving Penn, Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes, France, 1957

The subject is framed within the image’s formal design.

The curving lines of the hat’s brim and coat collar draws the viewer’s eye in and around the frame to explore the entirety of the composition.

Lit from the left side of the frame combined with the creative use of light and shadow imbues the image with a dramatic intensity.

This arrangement isolates the subject and removes him from his own everyday reality.

The hat and dark overcoat are the only props utilised within the composition and facilitate an intense engagement not only between the subject and the photographer but also outwards to the viewer and beyond exuding a sense of stillness and serene spirituality.

The image presents a cool, even appraisal that neither assaults nor caresses the sitter.

What I really try to do is photograph people at rest, in a state of serenity,’’

Irving Penn (interview with The New York Times Magazine, 1977)

Compositionally minimalistic in form the image presents the subject face half obscured receding in shadow.

It is a sparse lustrous head-and-shoulder portrait taken close-up, cropped within the constricting space of the square frame and set against a discreet neutral blurred background.

…. As a result there is a greater emphasis on a subtle exploration of gesture and expression between photographer and sitter.” 

Magdalene Keaney (Art Historian)

 (Irving Penn Portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2010, p. 7.)

The confrontational positioning of the subject close-up to the lens with its focus being directly upon the subject’s highlighted face, the shallow depth of field, precise clarity, severity and impassivity amplifies the sitter’s gesture, expression and powerful persona.

The lack of context confuses the viewer’s sense of scale and heightens awareness not just of the sitter’s face and what it reveals, but of what is unseen – the subject’s remoteness and possible vulnerability.

The image captures more than the subject’s character and individuality through the inclusion of the elaborate embroidery on the collar of the overcoat.

The tight cropping of Picasso’s face and deep highlight and shadow across it both flattens and breaks the image, into a series of abstract shapes and planes that reflect the cubist mantra of fragmentation.

As Mark Haworth-Booth states in his introduction to Irving Penn Fringes, (PaceWildensteinMacGill exhibition catalogue, 1996, n.p.) :

[it] is literally reflected in Picasso’s left eye.

“It represents not only the world beyond the viewfinder and studio, but also the tool of the current artist at work—the natural, ideally northern, daylight in which Penn preferred to work.

There is a great deal of detail within the print including the photographer’s daylight studio in the reflection of Picasso’s left eye.

Irving Penn, Detail image Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes , 1957

The image, at one level without a title, presents the rejection of any contextual narrative that readily identifies the sitter.

However the image’s title suggests otherwise through identifying the sitter.

This information arguably changes the context.

Through eschewing any defined background the subject assumes the central role, prompting viewers to focus on the very essence of the sitter,

“[Penn’s photographs] are not stories, but simply pictures.”

John Szarkowski

Director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, 

The close-up portrait is skilfully and almost perfectly centered around the sitter’s left eye with its penetrating look – a homage to Cubism.

The frame, divided into sections, bares the geometric abstraction of the artist’s Cubist period.

Other references to the style are rendered within the image, the embroidery on the overcoat, the eye, the strong tonal contrasts, the collar of the overcoat slicing, the face at an unconventional angle, the assembly of bold shapes the abstraction of the ear and the different lines dissecting the plane

The portrait may be compared with Picasso’s grey-toned  Buste de femme “, 26 III, 1956

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 14.17.44
Pablo Picasso, Buste de femme “, 26 III 1956

and “Portrait de femme à la robe verte”, 1956

Pablo Picasso, Portrait de femme à la robe verte”, May 1, 1956

In many ways Penn’s portrait of Picasso becomes more of a probable self-visualisation by Picasso rather than a regimented projection by the photographer of how a portrait should be.

The image of Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes, possesses a duality of meaning that embraces two great masters, both subtly revealing themselves from different sides of the same lens.

I trust that you find some of these ideas useful within the context of your own photography.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and allow different ideas to develop as you go along.

Remember the things which I have referred to in previous articles about taking photos and creating photograms; the same applies to considering your own photos, other photographers’ work as well as applying different artist’s ideas too.

Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Experiment! Experiment! Experiment!

Remember there are no right or wrong answers or ways of doing it.

Your photographs are your world.

You can do what you like. 

Don’t worry about the theory and trying to remember everything about how to take or consider how to look at or stage a photograph.

Don’t worry about what you might think is right or wrong in talking about or taking photographs.

 Make mistakes. Laugh. Have funJust enjoy the process.

Happy Photography. 

Thank you for your visit.

Art Photography Poetry

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