At the press preview for Irving Penn's "Small Trades" exhibit at the Getty Center, I was part of a group led through the galleries by curator Virginia Heckert. I should have been paying stricter attention, but I was distracted. All I could think was that this imposing group of 252 photographs represents just part of Penn's body of work. When an important and influential artist like Penn works for as many years as he has, a lot of people are bound to be affected on many different levels. I know I have been.
Penn, now 92, began his "Small Trades" series in 1950 while on assignment in Paris to photograph the fall collections for Vogue. In his rented daylight studio, Penn alternated between photographing models in couture clothing, well known portrait subjects, and the petit métiers, or local small tradespeople dressed in work clothes and carrying the tools of their occupations. The magazine hired photographer Robert Doisneau to help scout candidates for Penn's camera. A wide variety of subjects posed, including pastry cooks, a coal man, a glazier, a waiter, and firemen. The series, first published in Vogue, continued in London and New York.
Initially suggested by Vogue's art director, Alexander Liberman, the work was inspired by Penn's admiration of photographer August Sander's portraiture of every-day German people, Eugène Atget's images of Parisian street life, and his own desire to "record what was disappearing," according to Colin Westerbeck, director of UC Riverside's California Museum of Photography and a Penn scholar. The show at the Getty represents the first time the series has been presented in it's entirety.
Throughout his career, Penn would continue to maintain a balance in his work -- alternating fashion, advertising, still life, nudes, portraiture and images of varying "dissolving cultures," which took him to locales as exotic as Nepal and seemingly mundane as San Francisco. A collection of these images, of which the "Small Trades" are a part, were compiled in Penn's 1974 book, "Worlds In A Small Room."
My life has, at times, been punctuated by Mr. Penn's images, and sometimes by the man himself. Until about 1967, when I was 13, my idea of female beauty was largely shaped by magazines like Mademoiselle and Seventeen. The star of Seventeen at the time was Colleen Corby, the late '60's version of a teen super-model. My friends and I aspired to look like her. But in my house were also copies of Vogue. My mom was a subscriber and I began to look through them on a regular basis. Penn's photographs of models like the exotic Veruschka, Jean Shrimpton, and Marisa Berenson jolted me into not only a new concept of female beauty, but an entirely new way of looking at images.
Penn's models were not perky like the ones I was used to looking at in Seventeen. They were often stoic, their long limbs accentuated by his use of low angles and precise, meticulous lighting. Clearly Penn wasn't just trying to sell clothes or a lifestyle. He was also making statements about the human form, about light and texture. These pictures, and the models in them, initially made me uncomfortable. But now, looking back, I realize they were the beginning of my love of photographs. They made me realize that an image can have multiple meanings and, more importantly, tells us something about the photographer.
In the early 1970's I was a photography student at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. My boyfriend at the time was a fellow student, Dana Duke, who was a great admirer of Mr. Penn and hoped to snag an assistant's job with him after graduation. Dana managed to arrange an appointment to show Penn his portfolio in New York City. Penn could be tough when meeting with potential assistants. I went along and I remember both of us being extremely nervous sitting there with him.
Dana, who is still working as a photographer in New York, remembers:
He (Penn) looked very slowly through the photographs, then shuffled the order and looked at them again. After what seemed like the longest silence he said, 'You try to say too much about your subjects. Good photography is like a good book. You have to leave something to the imagination. There has to be a bit of mystery'. That's it! That's all he said.
After leaving I remember having felt that I expected more input from him. Later I found out how lucky I was. Little did I know Penn had given similar viewings of portfolios to other photographers I held in high regard. Same scenario, dead quiet while sorting through images. One photographer was then told to burn the portfolio. I guess we visited Penn on a good day!
Dana did not get the job, but we succeeded in convincing Penn to visit Providence and lecture to the photo students. It was his first time lecturing since a bad experience at Yale many years before. The fine arts students at Yale had attacked him for making his living from his commercial work and he feared the same would happen at RISD. In the end, the day went smoothly and Penn was a hit. He must have had some faith that things would go well. He took an entire day out of his busy schedule to fly up to Providence to speak to a bunch of strangers for $250.
By 1978 I had returned to Los Angeles. Still transitioning to post-student life, I took any opportunity to find inspiration. One particularly bad day I decided to check out a show of Penn's platinum-palladium images of street trash at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The minute I walked in I felt a sense of optimism take over. Soothed first by the velvety brilliance of the prints themselves, it was Penn's genius at taking the messiest bits of life (cigarette butts, old gloves, torn paper) and transforming them into objects of extreme beauty that ministered to me that day. Perhaps it was a metaphor for what I could make of the messiness of my own life. I'll never forget how uplifted I felt when I walked out of that gallery.
It's impossible to gauge how many others have been moved, awed, educated, inspired, or possibly even offended by Penn's photographs. As a photographer, as an artist, he has had a broader reach than most. His work has appeared in magazines, museums and books over a span of six decades. An acknowledged master of the art of photography, it is almost unthinkable to imagine the medium without him alive in the world.
As he has aged, Penn has begun to disperse his archive and body of work to various institutions. Different reports have him now working sporadically, or not at all. He spends more time with his son, who represented him this month at the Getty opening. It's both a thrill and a comfort for me that the entire series of "Small Trades" photographs has found a home at the Getty. The current exhibit is not only the largest of Penn's work ever to be mounted in Los Angeles, it is an invitation for Los Angeles to get to know Irving Penn and his extraordinary photographs.
Small Trades is on exhibit at the Getty through Jan. 10, 2010.
Photo: Pompier, Paris 1950 by Irving Penn, courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum