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Art review: 'Irving Penn: Small Trades' at J. Paul Getty Museum

September 12, 2009 |  8:00 am

Irving Penn Seamstress Fitter London 1950 A 1950 photograph by Irving Penn shows a London seamstress with the tools of her trade — thread, pins, tape measure, fabric — her right hand casually tucked inside one pocket, her other shrouded inside a partially sewn sleeve. Plainly dressed and wearing stereotypically sensible shoes, so different from the clothing worn by the fashionable people likely to employ her, she looks implacably into the camera's lens. The ruddy seamstress wears black-rimmed glasses, helpful to her detailed labor.

Penn's picture, part of a very large show of his work that opened this week at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is distinctive partly for the figure's setting.

It's the kind of atmospheric visual “nowhere” that Penn was instrumental in popularizing as a staple of fashion photography. (This one was made not from a roll of seamless white paper but an old theater curtain, and natural light was important.) She's standing in a blank space in which the floor slides up into the rear wall without benefit of a 90-degree angle. The healthy seamstress is transformed into a model of the kind Penn was photographing for Vogue magazine — he had married the Swedish stunner Lisa Fonssagrives not long before he took this picture — albeit a model notable for being mundane rather than couture-quality extraordinary.

The Getty exhibition, “Irving Penn: Small Trades,” is filled with black-and-white photographs like this, one of 252 in a set Penn assembled. The Getty acquired the set last year, and it's having its debut in the show. They were taken in Paris, London and New York between 1950 and 1951, when the photographer was 33 (he's now 92), and they include mostly prints made then or in the 1960s.

The format is pretty much the same throughout, whether the sitter is a fishmonger, contortionist, fireman, waiter, newspaper seller, rag picker, brick layer, deep-sea diver, ballroom dancing teacher or chimney sweep. Full-length, frontal, mostly standing, dressed in work clothes and holding an attribute — fish, fire hose, trowel, broom, etc. — the compositions are organized like a scientific typology. The sitter is a specific individual, but he stands in for a group.

The seamstress not withstanding, it's almost always a “he,” too. Women account for fewer than one in 10 pictures. Barely half a dozen sitters are not white.

Irving-PennPG A daunting show, given the enormous size, it is also an unusual opportunity for a thorough immersion into one body of work by an influential artist. And it's strange work. Fashion is often given life by the refined adaptation of street apparel, tribal clothing or workers' style. Like an anthropologist making an ethnographic study of his own rather than an exotic society, Penn does something similar for formal portrait photography. 

Three important 20th century photographers made pictorial catalogs of working-class men and women. French photographer Eugene Atget recorded tradesmen the way he did Versailles' parks and Paris' brothels — as signs of inevitable change in the modern era. German photographer August Sander did the same, although he made the documentary aspect of his work crisper, less atmospheric and more dispassionate than Atget did.

For both artists the camera was itself a workman's tool, his equivalent to the cleaning bucket, tin-snips or carpenter's hammer wielded by the photographic subjects. Atget was more romantic, filling his pictures with the soft light of long exposures; Sander claimed an objective eye, as if compiling the visual equivalent of a systematic typology.

Yet both created an inescapable analogy between their own labor as a machine-wielding documentarian and the work of the small tradesmen whose pictures they took. Think of them as “tradesmen photographers.”

Atget and Sander can partly be seen as erecting an image of enlightened humanism against the gathering darkness. They worked in Europe during a period deeply shadowed by the life-shattering brutalities of World War I.

Penn, a quintessential American in Paris after World War II, is considerably different. Partly he was inspired by Atget. But he was also educated at the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Arts, where the plainspoken legacy of Realist portraits by painter Thomas Eakins seems to have had a nominal effect. Whether Penn's pictures show workers in Paris, London or New York, their self-conscious artfulness exudes a quiet tension between plain and fancy.

Getty curators Virginia Heckert and Anne Lacoste have divided the abundant works into manageable chunks. One section looks at slight national differences, with copies of French, British and American Vogue magazines showing how Penn's small trades were deployed on the page. (In American Vogue, strict grids of nine pictures establish an egalitarian framework; the design anticipates Minimalist art by a decade.) Another juxtaposes similar jobs in different cities, and a third looks at restaurant workers, the largest group Penn photographed.

The most interesting focuses on Penn's working method — especially his switch from gelatin silver prints in the 1950s to platinum printing in the 1960s. In silver prints, light-sensitive particles are suspended in emulsion that sits on the paper's surface. In platinum prints, light-sensitive emulsion is absorbed into the paper's weave.

The former are darker, more brittle, emphasizing silhouettes. They underscore the pictorial image.

The latter are richer, more subtle and luxurious. Platinum prints stress the physical art object.

Juxtapositions of the same negatives printed two ways show how radically different the results can be. One shows an elegant, two-dimensional Cartier jewelry-store deliveryman; in platinum he blossoms into a voluptuously detailed, sensuously textured figure.

What's not convincing is the curatorial proposition about how Penn differs from Atget and Sander. The older artists are said to have made environmental portraits because they showed their workers in the settings of their labor — on the street, at the shop, in the factory. Penn, who photographed in the uniform, controlled setting of a studio, is said to have instead made psychological portraits.

Yet, attributing inner insight is a fiction — especially for sitters paid to show up for a job as a photographic subject. Nothing in the seamstress photo even hints at the complexity of her inner life. Everybody looks at least comfortable at their modeling task, and sometimes a degree of pride might be inferred.

But Penn's great skill is not in peeling away outer layers to show us the person hidden within. After all he's a fashion photographer par excellence. His workers model. Emphasizing aesthetics within ordinariness, their surfaces thrum with meaning.

-- Christopher Knight

"Irving Penn: Small Trades," J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood; 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Tuesday through Friday and Sunday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday. Ends Jan. 10. Free. (310) 440-7300

Photo: Irving Penn, "Seamstress Fitter, London," 1950; Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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