The resulting portraits–landmarks in the history of twentieth-century photography–are a brilliant update of some 300 years’ interest by artists in producing pictures of small tradesmen, or petit métiers."
Irving Penn was one of the most prolific, beloved, and influential artists to emerge after World War II. Known as the premier photographer for Vogue, he revolutionized the look of fashion photography and worked for half a century with the era’s most stunning women, including Lisa Fonssagrives (his wife), Jean Patchett, Carmen Dell’Orefice, and Marisa Berenson. Penn was also a brilliant portraitist. He photographed Truman Capote at age twenty-four, the elder Picasso, and nine-year-old cello prodigy Yo-Yo Ma. And he traveled to rural areas in five continents producing searing portraits of mountain children in Peru and Asaro Mud Men in New Guinea, among many other subjects.
This recent acquisition of sixty-four splendid portraits from Penn’s Small Trades series (1950–51) represents the artist’s most extensive body of work. From the streets of Paris, London, and New York, Penn welcomed tradesmen and women into his atelier–the same simple studios he used for his fashion work. The sitters wore their working clothes and brought with them the tools of their trades: a waiter stands erect in his pressed white apron; a fishmonger palms the day’s wet catch; a window washer shoulders a pail and balances on his ladder; and a lanky arborist grasps his long-armed limb pruner. For his part, Penn played his role and brought his own gear: a square-format camera, film, and the simple cloth backdrop fashioned from an old theater curtain that he used for his fashion studies. The resulting portraits–landmarks in the history of twentieth-century photography–are a brilliant update of some 300 years’ interest by artists in producing pictures of small tradesmen, or petit métiers. These photographs are a stunning reminder of what is great about the medium of photography. Collectively, they reveal how a true master who knew what he wanted from a portrait could use a neutral space, careful side lighting, and exquisite photographic materials to celebrate and honor the daily lives of working men and women.
Jeff L. Rosenheim
Curator in Charge
Department of Photographs