in brief

A round up of noteworthy exhibitions and events of late:

At the end of May when meeting up with a friend in London, we went to the National Portrait Gallery for the Irving Penn: Portraits exhibition. A show like that reaffirms my belief that life looks better in black and white. Penn’s prolific output and lengthy career meant he photographed a pretty good cross section of celebrity in the second half of the 20th century. Though his work was most widely viewed in magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, seeing actual prints make his photos all the more compelling. A similar exhibition of celebrity and fashion portraits by Cecil Beaton at the Walker last year, which left me underwhelmed, felt even more superficial compared to this. Beaton seemed content to photograph surfaces, whereas in Penn’s words:

what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe

A contact sheet of a session with novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett exemplifies his efforts to get behind the facade. Each negative shows a slightly different aspect of someone who looks like a character Judi Dench would get an Oscar nomination for playing, and yet none of them became the final print. Penn photographed many of his subjects in a studio environment that could be described as stripped down at best. It wasn’t designed to make the sitter comfortable, but it seems to have brought something interesting out of each person.

After much experimentation Penn settled on silver gelatin as his print of choice and it gives an undeniably 19th century quality to photographs of stars like Al Pacino. Wide-eyed and alomst haunted-looking, it’s one of the best photographs of him I’ve ever seen and it was possibly my favourite of the exhibition. Not even because I’m a particular fan of his, I’m not, but Penn’s ability to elicit and capture that expression at that moment encapsulate the photographer’s talent and technique.

Shooting under rather different conditions, but no less a master of creating memorable images, the Don McCullin retrospective Shaped by War at the Imperial War Museum North was an extremely moving experience in a museum than can’t fail to move you to sorrow, outrage, grief, or all of the above. McCullin made his name as a war photographer in the 1960’s and 1970’s for the Sunday Times Magazine, covering conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia, among others. He was actually shot in Cambodia and the camera that caught the bullet was displayed alongside photos he took from the back of the truck taking the wounded to safety. Possibly because images of the Vietnam War are already indelible in American consciousness, and I had a greater familiarity with the historical context, I actually found the most difficult images were of the Biafran famine. In particular, one of an albino boy. He was already an outcast for the colour of his skin, and the suffering on his face was indescribable. He stood, with other children behind him at a distance, holding an empty tin can. I admire McCuillan for bearing witness to these events, but I can’t imagine putting up the psychological barriers he had to erect to be able to do that job without going to pieces. The exhibition is travelling to the IWM in London next autumn, and it is very much worth seeing.

After taking that in as well as the main part of the museum, we needed a bit of something lighter. Luckily the Lowry is just across Salford Quays and the Spencer Tunick exhibition had just opened. And yes, there are naked people visible if you click on that link, FYI.

My main reason for going was that a friend had taken part in its creation and I wanted to see if I could spot her. There are about a dozen photographs and a film of the shoot taking place across Salford and Manchester. Tunick said he wanted to respond to LS Lowry’s work and in the choice of location on Dantzic Street and the position of the participants, I could kind of see what he was getting at. Other pictures are, in fact, large groups of naked people, albeit artfully arranged ones. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and given that it was bloody cold on the morning of the shoot, I take my hat off to the people willing to strip off and pose. I couldn’t spot my friend, but she did manage to find herself in at least one of the pictures and told me where to look for her if I do go back and see it again.

Liverpool stuff:
Check out http://www.sevenstreets.com, my new favourite site about Liverpool goings on. Well written and offbeat.

Coming up on June 30 is the first Social Media Cafe at Static Gallery. It’s free and you can register here.

I’m on the way home from two lovely days at Wimbledon. Saw some great tennis, drank more Pimms than I ever have before (thank God it’s diluted with lemonade or I would have been hammered in the heat on Friday) and had a generally very good time.

Ok, maybe that wasn’t so brief. That’s what Twitter’s for anyway.

High Violet is rapidly becoming my album of the summer. Go have a listen.

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