I saw the Irving Penn: Platinum Prints exhibit at the west wing of the National Gallery of Art in DC over the weekend. Penn himself indicated that he made these prints to show what he could really do. Naturally then I had high expectations of this exhibit. I came away disappointed and perplexed.
On the technical side, I expected to see masterful platinum/palladium printing. I did not. What I saw was good solid blacks (impressive for platinum/palladium) with a lack of shadow detail. Penn is revered as a fashion photographer, yet print after print had dark clothes (the fashions) that went black with no texture -- no shadow detail. For a fashion photograph to not show the fashions is, well, what is that?
Also, many a forehead had completely blown out highlights. Contrast levels were very harsh on most prints. It's almost like he had an aversion to midtones. And here I thought the raison d'Ítre of platinum printing was smooth midtones.
On the aesthetics side, I found much of his portraiture to be, well, um... weak. He seemed to think that boring his subjects into a blank stare at the camera lens revealed something about them. To me, it revealed more about them being bored by the photographer. The best of the portraits I found were those of his wife, and the one of Pablo Casals (I think it was) both of whom seemed to refuse to play that game.
I was shocked. I've been to many exhibits by many photographers, unknowns to well knowns. Always seeing the original prints the way the artist intended them has left me more impressed. Until this exhibit. I was left with the distinct impression that the emperor has no clothes.
So, can any of you who have seen this exhibit enlighten me? Why is Penn so well regarded? Can any of you who have seen the exhibit tell me your impressions of the prints? I want to believe, but I'm having a hard time with this one.