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Portraits at work

The Getty's 'Small Trades' show reveals Irving Penn's skilled eye.

September 12, 2009|Christopher Knight | ART CRITIC

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 notwithstanding, it's almost always a "he," too. Women account for fewer than one in 10 pictures. Barely half a dozen sitters are not white.

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.

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Varying labors

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 plain-spoken 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.

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