Irving Penn Smaller Than Life

Seamstress Fitter, London. Negative, 1950; print 1951. Gelatin silver print.


American artist Irving Penn (1917–2009) began his career working for Vogue as a fashion photographer, creating images with clean lines, crisp tones, and balanced compositions that garnered accolades in the worlds of art as well as fashion before Juergen Teller was even a flash in his mother’s eye. In the early 1950s, the photographer began to expand his oeuvre; shooting in London, Paris, and New York, Penn started a series he called “Small Trades,” the most comprehensive collection of which is now on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Taking tradespeople as his subjects, Penn photographed workers against a neutral studio background, each in full uniform with all of the accoutrements of their occupations. To a contemporary eye, the backdrop and staging make the images appear like sociological or anthropological studies.

In his art photography, Penn kept close to the style he had developed in fashion ediitorial, paying attention to the human form, the aesthetic aspects of body language, and the importance and symbolism of the garments an individual dons, imparting a striking elegance upon the workers he portrayed. Much of the tension results from moving the tradespeople he selected into the studio, in full garb. The titular figure in Coal Man, London, (1950–1951) wears dirty clothes that would seem out of place, but subtly become the backdropped envitronment. In the case of Commis—Laurie, Paris (1950, 1967), it’s the pristine, fastidiously preserved uniforms of the restaurant staff that simultaneously elevate and mark them—and make them the fascination of Penn. The show, curated by Virginia Heckert and Anne Lacoste, includes 155 gelatin silver prints and 97 platinum/palladium prints arranged in galleries that, in turn, highlight the difference in trades among the three cities in which he shot, the platinum/palladium prints with which he began to experiment in the mid-1960s, and the difference in the gelatin silver and platinum/palladium printing techniques that Penn used to create his images.