Monday, 26 April 2010

Irving Penn, Fashion Photography and Fashion Illustration


I was thinking on the flight to Singapore about the Irving Penn exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It has had good reviews. Not that it is any surprise that we have yet another empty exercise in fashionable hagiography at that most shallow of any major gallery. It is entirely appropriate that Penn's portrait gallery of thinkers and creators from the late 1930s until his death would attract its directors. It is equally predictable that critics should feel the need to overpraise it. But, although Penn has left some of the most defining fashion and still-life images of his generation, it only requires a brief look at the portraits of Henri Cartier Bresson (whose work is on show currently at The Museum of Modern Art in New York) or Bill Brandt to realise that what we see at the NPG is portraits by a fashion photographer, not a great portrait photographer … and certainly not a great photographer per se.

It is because fashion is about surface that it is easy to understand. It has no interior monologue, as I remarked in an earlier blog about the new genre of "fashion film". That is why photographs that depict it are popular. But it is an approach that eventually palls. We all know how boring most fashion shoots can be. If we contrast them with the fashion illustrations that animated the pages of the cheap weeklies as well as the top monthlies for most of the 20th century, we see what has been lost. Inherent in the DNA of a brushstroke or a pencil mark is the character of whoever made it. Most fashion illustration of that period had personality because it was almost always drawn from life and was a portrait (admittedly very glamorized) of a woman as well as a garment. Today, fashion drawing - when you can find it - lacks animation because the artist rarely works from a model. What we get again is the feeling of looking at a flat surface rather than something rooted in a seen reality.

1 comment:

  1. Penelope and Adam29 April 2010 at 09:37

    Yes. What a very perceptive take on it (from an insider too!)

    Penn was a great photographer but pretty shallow.

    Avedon on the other hand whilst also steeped in 'fashion' made some of the most telling and brutally revealing portraits of the 20thC. Governor George Wallace for example - almost as cruel and incisive as Gerald Scarfe.

    Despite my awe (even worship!) of Cartier Bresson I don't think his portraits are by any means his best work,
    though his shot of Mattisse with the doves is quite wonderful.

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