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irving penn, national portrait gallery, london

I am a dunce. The last time I was down in London (a few weeks ago) I was determined to visit the National Portrait Gallery, having heard so much about it. So off I toddled, only getting slightly lost and confused on the way. Fantastic place. Great images. Loved it.

Oh yes, discovered yesterday that the National Gallery (where I was) and the National Portrait Gallery were not the same thing. Oops.

So yesterday I met Philly at the National Gallery and she dragged the three hundred odd yards to the National Portrait Gallery.

Fantastic place. Great images. Loved it.

We went into see the Irving Penn exhibition, and whilst I was familiar with some of his work, in a very loose unconnected way, I was unprepared for the sheer quality and power of his image making. Concentrating on his photographs of the great and the good, the exhibition shows his stylistic and creative evolution from the 1940s up until 2007 when he passed away.

His early work defied portraiture convention, placing his subjects at the centre of bland empty spaces, or in the corner of converging walls, forcing the focus solely on the character and personality of the person being photographed. Other images focused in more tightly on the face, yet often these images defied convention as well, with the subject closing their eyes covering part of their face with prop, hand or clothing. In the vast collection of works displayed, the images were striking more often than not, encapsulating Penn's sense of empathy and humour with a deft use of shape, texture and space.

Particular favourites:

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, New York, 1947 - beautiful composition and shape, imperious and powerful in the confidence of the subjects

Peter Ustinov, London, 1947 - another striking image, the pose unusual and contorted but lending an air of almost bored contemplation

Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes, 1957 - a close up, wearing a hat, his face partially covered by the lapels of his coat, forcing you to focus on the intensity of Picasso's gaze. Incredible.

Saul Steinberg in a Nose Mask, New York, 1966 - unbelievably cheeky. A large paper/cardboard sheet covers his face, with two blank holes for eyes, nose protruding through the hole below. Layers of humour and mischief here.

Issey Miyake, New York, 1988 - head covered in a cowl of textured material with three quarter lighting, casting part of his face into shadow, this image exude intensity and a formidable personality. One of my favourites.

The Irving Penn exhibition is well worth visiting, £10 a ticket, free if you are a member of the NPG (or know someone who is). It is on until the 6th of June.

Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1948 - National Portrait Gallery

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