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Irving Penn - the portraits

Irving Penn was a master at capturing the true character of his subjects, as a new exhibition exploring the work of the American portraitist reveals. By Michael Glover

He is the only man here without a face. That is the first thought that strikes you as you are about to leave this extensive, 70-year-spanning retrospective of photographic portraiture by the late Irving Penn, one of the great American innovators of our time, at the National Portrait Gallery. We've seen Dietrich, Duke Ellington, Giacometti, Stravinsky, Nureyev, Nicole Kidman, Al Pacino, Woody Allen tricked out to look like Charlie Chaplin and, last but not least, the swashbuckling portrait of Julian Schnabel that Penn took in 2007, not long before his death. But where, amid all these artists, movie stars, painters, writers, musicians and ballerinas, is Penn himself? There is not a single image of him in this show. The snapshot of him on this page is a rarity indeed. The photographer whose image – by Penn – we do see and remember here is that of his contemporary Cecil Beaton, the flamboyant society photographer, looking as loud, elegant, and wispily charmlessly charming as ever.

Penn's tactics as a photographer could scarcely have been more different from Beaton's. In the world of Beaton, Beaton himself was a large and raucous part of the glamorous society story he was telling. He was among the glamorous beauties he was offering up to the world on a sugary platter. Penn was never that sort of a man. He was gentle by nature, as self-effacing as his Rolleiflex, someone who preferred to notice rather than be part of what was noticed. And that is the reason for his greatness as a photographer.

Penn's story begins in the 1930s, and it opens in spareness, austerity, a skilful use of economy of means, traits that would be forever associated with the Penn portrait. Pared back to their essentials, that is how Penn's subjects always look when they are photographed in his studio. The studio setting itself is usually pared back too. There's almost a sense of visual drought. Everything is in monochrome, from first to last. The walls look a drab, hazy, pocky grey; the floors have bits of threads adhering to them. The lighting is never fussy or stagy or glarey. It is either daylight or simulated daylight. There are scarcely any props. Rather than using a table for his sitters to sit at he would throw a length of carpet over a plinth, and let his subjects lean or lounge against it, or settle into it like swimmers beached among the waves. Or he would take a couple of theatre flats and enclose his sitters within them, as if they are being squeezed by two enclosing walls. So there is no glamour about the context, no baroque extravagance, nothing to distract from the matter in hand, which is, from beginning to end: dissection of character.

In a striking portrait of Al Pacino, the actor seems to be pinioning, almost skewering, us with his gaze. Our entire focus is drawn to that eye of his. This intense focus upon the subject includes a minute degree of attention to the least little gesture – a movement of the hand, an inclination of the head. How hands work with faces is an enduring interest from first to last, how the hand is used to conceal or to lend gravity to a face. It is these things that we tend to remember about a Penn portrait; it is these tiny details that make them especially memorable, the way in which Peter Ustinov clutches his chin, or Le Corbusier his temple. And these small things seem to yield up a great deal. An entire characterisation is gifted to us by the way in which Truman Capote is oddly hunched, if not crumpled, inside these two flats. Time and again, Penn seems to have captured character on the wing, unstudiedly, unlabouredly, as if the hidden inside of the human has, all of a sudden, become visible to the naked eye. Some of his subjects even look like more exaggerated and over-emphatic versions of themselves – take the portrait of Duke Ellington for example, from 1971. If it were not a photographic image, you might be inclined to accuse it of being a bit of mischievous caricature.

The very first portrait in the show is an image of the painter Giorgio de Chirico, taken at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1936. The young Penn had never met the man, but he knew what he looked like. And de Chirico allowed himself to be photographed by this eager, near-idolatrous stranger. The portrait is a marvel because of its humour – although Penn had a great capacity for humour, it was a weapon he used sparingly. De Chirico's head seems to be enveloped in a wreath of leaves, as if he is a force of nature. Or perhaps he is wearing the laurel crown. Or he may be in the throes of being metamorphosed into a tree – as Daphne once was by Ovid – but this time by the magic of the photographer himself... All these possibilities are held in delightful and affectionate balance. As Penn once said: "We don't shoot people... It's really a love affair."

Irving Penn Portraits, 18 February to 6 June, National Portrait Gallery, London WC1 (0844 579 1924)