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Collection of Working Man Portraits - "The Small Trades" - to go on view in 2009

February 6, 2008

LOS ANGELES—The J. Paul Getty Museum has announced the acquisition of Irving Penn’s unique master set, The Small Trades.  Initially created in 1950 and 1951 in London, New York, and Paris, The Small Trades consists of 252 full-length portraits of skilled tradespeople in their work clothes and carrying the tools of their respective trades, photographed in natural light against a neutral backdrop.  The Small Trades was Penn’s most extensive body of work, involving 215 subjects from three cities, and he returned to it over many decades, producing ever more exacting prints.

“We are thrilled to acquire this meticulously crafted set of prints, which was so close to Mr. Penn’s heart,” says J. Paul Getty Museum Director Michael Brand.  “This acquisition not only expands our already excellent holdings of portrait photography, but will allow us to fulfill Mr. Penn’s hopes of keeping the collection intact and displaying it as a whole work.  We will also have the opportunity to publish the photographs and make them available to scholars and enthusiasts of his work.”

Born in New Jersey in 1917 and active for almost seven decades, Irving Penn is recognized as one of the most important living photographers.  Like Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, or George Hurrell, he became widely known through his commercial work in fashion and advertising. His trademark style is characterized by a smooth gray or white backdrop, natural lighting, and minimal props. The simplicity of these elements contributes to the austere elegance of his images, while also underscoring the fundamental theatricality of the photographer’s decision to single out each subject for portrayal.

The Small Trades grew out of an assignment from Vogue magazine to photograph workers in Paris in the summer of 1950. Penn photographed tradespeople in London later that year and in New York (where he lived and mainly worked) the following year. Like all great art, the results of The Small Trades initially look effortless, but underlying the project was a carefully planned multi-step process.

The first step was to locate authentic representatives of the various trades. This process was not unlike selecting models for a fashion shoot. Assistants sought out people at work, and invited them to come to the studio, dressed exactly as they were and carrying the tools of their trade. With the same care that he would devote to picturing highly-paid fashion models, he posed the workers standing upright against a neutral background. Penn employed a tripod-mounted camera, exposing his negatives on high-speed roll-film in order to achieve slightly grainy effects that exploit the gray scale in a painterly way. He made the finished prints himself with little or no assistance from others.

The brilliantly lucid silver-gelatin enlargements and those in platinum had to meet Penn’s demanding standards and typically just two or three would be judged to be of satisfactory quality to keep in his archive. Penn regarded this work of 1950-1951 so highly that he returned to the negatives on many occasions to interpret them differently, always depositing the best print in the key set.

With this acquisition, the Getty Museum is planning an exhibition of the collection and a publication for September 2009.  This will mark the first time the set has been displayed in its entirety.

“This acquisition enhances our holdings of portrait photography, from nineteenth-century masters such as Hill and Adamson and John Thomson, and continuing into the twentieth century with work by Lewis Hine, August Sander, Paul Strand, Lisette Model, Dorothea Lange, and Milton Rogovin,” explains Weston Naef, the Getty’s senior curator of photographs.

Naef adds, “Additionally, The Small Trades provides an excellent opportunity to compare the artifice and stylization of Penn’s approach with the truthful, objective goals of August Sander, whose work we are mounting in a major exhibition this May.”

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Beth Brett
Getty Communications

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