When I wrote this essay the past week, I meant it to be a tribute to an artist as well as an invitation to see the Irving Penn show now up at the Getty Museum. Sadly, it must serve also as a memorial. Irving Penn died this past Wednesday morning at his home in Manhattan. He was 92. Here is a link to the obituary in the NY Times:
One of the major bodies of work in photography started in a sixth floor walk-up Parisian garret. The space had a bank of dirty windows along one wall and a glazed ceiling rigged with movable dark cloth panels to control the ambient sky light. The photography was done by this available light, moving nothing more than the cloths and a few cutters to control spill light on the non-descript drop cloth that provided a background for the subjects.
Photographer Irving Penn was 33 years old when the legendary art director of American Vogue magazine, Alexander Lieberman, sent him off to Paris to photograph fashion models for the fall clothing line. He had an additional assignment to shoot European artists and celebrities for the magazine, whenever they could be scheduled.
But this is not the work we are looking at here. Penn’s personal goal while in Paris was to do something else: a series of portraits of working class trades people. As a student in Philadelphia in the Thirties, under the guidance of another legendary art director, Alexey Brodovitch of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, Penn had been drawn to the work of late 19th century street photographer Eugene Atget, especially the work called “Petits Metiers” (“Small Trades”). Atget had photographed manual laborers, street vendors, tradesmen, as he found them out on the streets where he was mainly documenting the disappearing narrow rues and shops that were falling prey to ever-expanding demolition, making way for Haussmann’s new Paris.
Several decades later in the Weimar Republic of the Twenties, August Sander essayed a comprehensive “typology” of the German people. His work, likewise, was made in real living spaces and on the streets. Last year the Getty Museum in Los Angeles held a comprehensive retrospective of his work:
Penn’s startling conceit, however, was to remove any real-life context and to portray the subjects in a totally neutral environment. Here is a photo of his Paris studio showing windows, skylight and backdrop.
Being a recent arrival in France, Penn knew few people. He employed two local men who went out into the streets of the left bank working class environs of Rue Mouffetard to secure subjects. One of these “beaters” was Robert Doisneau who himself shortly became a major photographer of the Parisian scene.
Still feeling wary from residual anxieties of the German occupation during the Second World War, it was the lure of a small fee that brought many working people up to the studio, still dressed (as instructed) in their uniforms, lugging the often heavy tools of their trade up the narrow stairs. Later that year and early the next, when Penn continued the work in London and then in New York City, he dispensed with the fees. The Londoners seemed more openly proud of their professions. The New Yorkers, according to Penn, arrived for the sessions like celebrities for a publicity shoot on their way to Hollywood. Here is a photo of a Parisian waiter.
And of a London Seamstress:
And of a fireman in New York City:
There is a singular look to the sessions in all venues. The distinguishing qualities lie in the attitudes of the subjects and in that the photos from Paris and London are all light sourced from frame right while the ones from New York are all sourced from the left. Drawn from work in all three cities, this exhibition is comprehensive and contains almost 250 images; it represents the complete “Small Trades.” The Getty acquired it from Penn, part as donation and part as sale. In recent years Penn has selected a number of institutions to be repositories of the broad range of his work.
The review of the exhibition in the LA Times by Christopher Knight describes the layout of the show:
The NY Times review by Randy Kennedy gives details about how the work was acquired by the Getty, starting with the efforts of former Getty photography dept. head Weston Naef:
More than a decade after the “Small Trades” sessions, Penn continued his exploration of people and their ”costumes”—even though his reputation at the time was largely based on his fashion work. He developed a portable “studio” with a similar non-descript backdrop, which he carried with his cameras around the world. Describing himself now as “an ambulant studio photographer,” he documented indigenous people from New Guinea to Dahomey to Crete, eventually including even San Francisco’s Hell’s Angels and a joint portrait of The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company. The resulting book, published in 1974, is called Worlds in a Small Room (the small room being his collapsible studio) and though modest in scale, the book’s influence has been enormous. It includes a selection from “Small Trades.”
Just as Eugene Atget and August Sander were antecedent to Penn’s work, both his contemporary, Richard Avedon, and, more recently, Mark Laita, have utilized a neutral background to stage their class sensitive portraits.
Avedon, who died recently, employed a distinctive white relief whether he was in the studio photographing models and celebrities or on the road documenting drifters, as “In the American West.”
Mark Laita, like Penn and Avedon, a successful commercial photographer, began his exploration of contrasting American types in 2000 with a series of diptychs called “Created Equal.”
A portfolio of 65 of his dual, contrasting portraits can be found on the Fahey-Klein Gallery website. They are alternately humorous and deeply moving.
Penn’s work has expanded ever wider as his eye found interest in everything. I saw a show at The Marlborough Gallery on 57th St. in the early 80s that consisted of large platinum-palladium prints mounted on aluminum sheets. The subject was street detritus, mainly cigarette butts blown up to heroic dimensions.
And even (now in color) an almost abstract composition of frozen vegetables assumes sculptural grandeur:
A high quality portfolio of Penn’s celebrity portraits and ethnographic work can be seen here. Click “portfolio”:
At the start of the recent fall term for the Fellows at the American Film Institute, Senior Filmmaker in Residence, cinematographer Stephen Lighthill, invited me to give an introduction and walkthrough of the current photography exhibition at the Getty. I have done this a number of years now and always look forward to it as an opportunity to share my love of the photo image with students. The one I did this past month of Penn’s “Small Trades” is so compelling not only for the wonderful human insights it affords us into national attitudes presented simply, but also as a first time opportunity to see this historic work intact. On a more technical level, the detailed comparison in several galleries of Penn’s compositional and printmaking evolution drew the fellows into very close scrutiny of individual prints. Some of the portraits are represented in differing sizes, compositions and techniques. Especially significant is the comparison between the traditional rich and contrasty B/W silver prints made as normal enlargements from his two and a quarter inch Rolliflex negatives, and of the platinum/palladium prints he began to make in the mid Sixties.
The vintage B/W silver prints were mostly cropped in a vertical format, the full figure portrait contained within the width of the narrow backdrop curtain. Many of the later platinum prints, exploiting the full frame of the square negative, run off the backdrop, at times even revealing the stands securing it: a more self-conscious statement of “portrait.”
The wall text extols the richer and smoother gradation of the grey scale apparent in the platinum prints. These prints are made from a much-enlarged negative, the platinum process being very labor intensive. The paper is hand coated with the emulsion. When dry, the negative is placed directly in contact with it and exposed to a xenon light for one minute to one hour. Since it is a contact technique, the printing negative is the same size as the print.
One of the fellows asked me why the platinum process has a tonal range greater than the silver print. I replied, “Why does a film negative have more tonal range than a digital pixel array?”
The catalog for the exhibition is not only comprehensive with beautiful plates, as you would expect from a Getty venture, but there is an introductory essay by the show curators Virginia Heckert and Anne Lactose, as well as an interview with Edmond Charles-Roux who was editor of French Vogue and who assisted Penn for the Paris sessions.
Penn became more obsessed with printing at the time of the platinum versions of “Small Trades.” For an artist as much in demand as he, it must have been sweetly stolen time spent in his darkroom. At the end of the catalog’s introductory essay he says: “Finally I arrived at the serene pleasure of making the print itself. Over the years I must have spent thousands of hours silently brushing on the liquid coatings, preparing each sheet in anticipation of reaching the perfect print.”
The “artist” Irving Penn, fingers stained with chemicals, eyes pained from noxious fumes, here became transformed into the “worker” Irving Penn, a purveyor of his own small trade.