The subjects of the velvety black-and-white pictures
are not exactly Irving Penn's elegantly dressed, or undressed, regulars:
a plump charwoman with her bucket and brush; a bespectacled seamstress
draped with her measuring tape; a deep-sea diver disappearing into his
monstrous helmet and suit.
But Mr. Penn considered these blue-collar
portraits, called "The Small Trades," some of the most important of his
long and influential career. He began taking them in the summer of 1950
for Vogue, the magazine with which he has become synonymous, and now
they have finally found a home together at a museum. On Wednesday the J.
Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles announced that it had acquired the
entire series, 252 full-length portraits of workers — waiters, bakers,
butchers, rag-and-bone men — that it called Mr. Penn's most extensive
body of work.
"This is a set of images that the Getty has been thinking about and
wanting to get for several years," said Virginia Heckert, an associate
photography curator at the Getty, who helped negotiate a deal with Mr.
Penn, who sold some of the pictures and donated others. "In the last
year it finally managed to come together. It's a very exciting
acquisition for us."
Mr. Penn, now 90, began the portrait project in Paris for a Vogue series
on that city's workers. He continued it for another year after the
assignment, seeking out workers in London and then in New York, where he
lived, asking them to come to his studio in their work clothes and
carrying the tools of their trade.
Unlike the photographs of August Sander, who took more naturalistic,
anthropological portraits of German tradespeople and professionals
usually in the settings where they worked, Mr. Penn's portraits, perhaps
owing to his training as a painter and a fashion photographer, are more
formal and personal. He posed each subject against a neutral background
and tried to use natural northern light.
"There is something quite theatrical about the presentation of Penn's
subject to the camera," Ms. Heckert said. "They're basically on a
But because of the isolated setting, the pictures also seem to reveal
something about the people as individuals, not just as functionaries.
"It's really about the subject presenting himself in a more intimate
setting to his photographer," she added. "It's a more psychological
relationship between the artist and the subject." She added that, at a
time when abstraction was becoming the dominant mode in the art world,
Mr. Penn's decision to dedicate himself to art portraiture was important
and made the series even more significant. "He didn't want to go away
from the subject but to find a way to describe it in utter detail," Ms.
Weston Naef, the Getty's senior photography curator, said that the
museum had been working to acquire the series for more than five years,
but the sticking point had been copyright ownership of the images. In
many cases, he said, Mr. Penn and Condé Nast, which owns Vogue, share
the copyrights to Mr. Penn's images. And the Getty, which had long
insisted that it be given copyright power over the trade series, along
with the master set of the photographs, decided in the end to abandon
the copyright demand.
"This was a real advance for this institution to be able to do that on
such a large scale," said Mr. Naef, who added that when it comes to
copyrights for Mr. Penn's work, "it is always a complicated story." (He
and Ms. Heckert declined to say how much the museum paid for the
silver-gelatin and platinum prints, whose sale was negotiated by the
In recent years Mr. Penn has been engaging in negotiations that have
placed important pieces of his work at prominent institutions like the
Art Institute of Chicago and the Morgan Library & Museum in New
York. Mr. Naef said that the Getty made a compelling case that the
workers' portraits would be well served at the museum, which has
extensive holdings of Sander's work, for example, and one of the best
photography collections in the world. The Getty plans an exhibition of
the images in September 2009.
"We think he's one of the greatest living artists in any medium," Mr.
Naef said. "And we like to focus on whole bodies of work. We're seeing
these pictures as if they're Monet's waterlilies, a single coherent body
And in the span of Mr. Penn's work, he said: "They're absolutely
seminal. They're like Jasper Johns flags or Rauschenberg's 'combines.' "
By Randy Kennedy
For The New York Times