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Getty Museum Acquires Penn Photographs

Posted By Administration, Thursday, February 07, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

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 stage."

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. Heckert said.

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 Pace/MacGill Gallery.)

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 of work."

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

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