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A revealing look at photographer, portraitist

Art lovers will enjoy books on Penn and Holbein

SHARE A revealing look at photographer, portraitist

IRVING PENN: THE PLATINUM PRINTS, Sarah Greenough, Yale University Press, $50, hardback; 17 color, 83 tritones and 20 duotone illustrations; 200 pages.

HOLBEIN & ENGLAND: A FASCINATING PORTFOLIO OF THE MEN & WOMEN OF TUDOR ENGLAND, Susan Foister, Yale University Press, $65, hardback, 40 color plates, 180 black and white, 288 pp.

In a career that spans more than 50 years, Irving Penn (1917-) has created some of the most arresting portraits, influential fashion studies and provocative still lifes of the 20th Century. With the recent publication of "Irving Penn: The Platinum Prints," Yale University Press — in association with the National Gallery of Art — has given readers the opportunity to experience the photographs of one of our nation's master craftsmen and pre-eminent visual artists.

While most of Penn's work was undertaken for reproduction in magazines, in the early 1960s, after becoming disenchanted with the printing quality of his work, he began producing a limited number of platinum/palladium prints of his most celebrated photographs. Using a process that required a meticulous eye and extensive experimentation, Penn eventually produced prints that were remarkably subtle, with rich tonal ranges and luxurious textures.

In her opening essay on Penn, author Sarah Greenough, curator and head of the department of photography at the National Gallery of Art, expressed that the photographer is an intense man with a quiet dedication to his art. "Penn did not merely lament the decline of the publishing industry, instead he refocused his priorities, embarked on a multiyear research project to learn more about the long-forgotten technique of platinum printing," and in the end redefined the nature of his art.

Greenough touches quickly on Penn's complex relationship with Alexander Liberman, the art director of Conde Nast, and how their falling out — Liberman began using the photographer Richard Avedon almost exclusively — encouraged Penn to rethink his art. She also presents a short history of other alternative printing techniques that became popular in the 1960s and '70s.

Reinterpreting his photographs through platinum printing allowed Penn to reclaim his work as his own. "As he did so," said Greenough, "he transformed them into the independent works of art that have been celebrated for the last 30 years."

The quality of the book's printed pages will excite readers; it's as if we are actually seeing the photographs as Penn would have them be seen.

For anyone interested in the art of photography, this is a must-purchase.

(This book accompanies an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, through Oct. 2.)

ANOTHER EXCELLENT PUBLICATION by Yale University Press, in association with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, is "Holbein & England: A Fascinating Portfolio of the Men & Women of Tudor England."

One of the foremost artists of 16th century Europe — and certainly one of the greatest portraitists of all time — Hans Holbein the younger (1497-1543) earned high acclaim for his work both in the city of Basel, Germany, and in England for Henry VIII and other patrons.

Even though Holbein's early work was in Basel, the artist lived and worked in England for the majority of his career, becoming the court painter to Henry and Anne Boleyn. Other English patrons included aristocrats, royalty, merchants, intellectuals, clerics and visiting foreigners.

While "Holbein & England" is abounding with gorgeous color and black-and-white reproductions of the artist's paintings, the book also goes into fascinating detail about the artist's relationship with his patrons. Readers get a vivid sense of English life during the Renaissance.

Author Susan Foister also discusses Holbein's decorative paintings and murals, and his designs for goldsmiths, as well as his techniques and working practices.

As interesting as is the history in the book, it is Holbein's art that makes for a wonderful read. Even today, to savor a Holbein portrait in one of the world's museums is an experience beyond belief. "Holbein & England" is a worthy addition to anyone's art-book collection.

E-mail: gag@desnews.com