Of Irving Penn's new book, Small Trades (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009), one's first apprehension is its anachronistic, anti-climactic quality. The Small Trades Project, as it was termed, was carried out in Paris, London and New York in 1950-51; though originally intended to be reproduced in Vogue Magazine as feature article illustrations, Penn eventually made full-scale art prints from the medium format negatives, printing them in Platinum-Palladium emulsions.
It has always seemed to me that Penn's work exhibits a tension between things and people seen through the careful eye of a fashion illustrator, and his naturalistic interest in exploiting the gritty verité textures and surfaces of everyday "real life." Fashion photography is primarily about creating a sense of a perfected occasion, one in which an invented, elevated social or artistic potential is fantasized through the production of idealized images of style, wealth, conspicuous consumption--a demonstration of, or the aspiration towards, class and esteem.
Working for Vogue, beginning in the late 1940's, Penn's approach to subject-matter was studio-oriented, under circumstances of utmost control. Never a photo-journalist, he was always a perfectionist, seeing his images as clarified instances, with a high degree of definition and purpose. There is never anything "accidental" about a Penn still-life, or a Penn portrait: Everything is just so, and the reproduction of the original vision is carried out with painstaking devotion to detail and effect.
Starting out in Paris, working in a natural light studio setting (Penn's preference), as seen below, using coarse theatrical canvas backgrounds, exploiting all the primitivistic visual qualities of such earlier attempts, for instance, of Atget's documentary images, Penn sought to create a series of caricatures of identity profiles based on eccentric tradespeople, separated from their respective milieus, isolated against a neutral studio setting--an approach which he would use repeatedly over successive decades, both for straight celebrity and fashion portraiture, as well as for "primitive" and exotic subjects (i.e., the "mud men" of New Guinea). Penn sought out and paid dozens of different tradespeople, picked out on the street, persuaded to come as they were into the studio.
Penn's Paris Studio
The initial effect of this kind of specimen portraiture is condescension. The picturesque absurdity of portraying working-people in their functional outfits, with their tools and paraphernalia in hand or hanging off their outfits, is emphasized and exaggerated by the black and white, dry-point, sepia ranged images. Penn was quoted as saying that he had great respect for these tradespeople, admired their diligence and specific dignity, and felt that his portraits revealed their strengths and integrity. But there are other dimensions to this enterprise.
Most of these individuals are from the lower classes. The work they do may be crucial and necessary, but it is frequently back-breaking, dirty, repetitive, and dreary. Penn seems not to have fully apprehended the irony of putting such "low company" into the context of high fashion journalism and publicity--unless, as may well be possible, he felt that by doing so, he could ennoble them, to honor them through the care of unfettered regard.
Many of the subjects are truly anachronistic--the circus performers, many of the street vendors, chimney sweep, iceman, trainporter, blacksmith, milkman, etc.--who are already like curiosities in a wax museum, a metaphorical undertone that is common to many of these portraits. If these individuals appear quaint and dated, it's evidence of the distance we feel from them in time, as well as the presumed separation between their sense of economic dilemma and our leisured regard.
The documentary style Penn employs here is also suggestive of the periodical illustration style of previous eras: Hogarth, Cruikshank, Daumier, Nast, Beerbohm--and even contemporary figures such as Hirschfeld or Levine, Searle or Ralph Steadman. The range of possible responses to such caricatured identities isn't limited to, or controlled by, Penn's precise, aesthetically sophisticated methodology. Many of these images seem absurdly pompous, or sadly pathetic. Penn's objectivization of these type-cast early technological-industrial species suggests the high picaresque seediness toward the end of the settled urban condition, before efficiencies and consolidations squeezed these individuals out of the social contract.
In the immediacy of the post-War world of Western Europe, Penn and his editors may have felt that a whole way of life was disappearing, and in a sense they were correct. What travelers and journalists who moved in that world would reluctantly be forced to acknowledge, was that no true reconstitution of the Ancien Régime would ever occur, that automation, mass communication and the speed of the modern world would close forever the curtain on the charming small scale of daily life.
As more and more were swept up into the propulsive flux of late capitalism, the meaning of individual identity--its knowledge, accoutrements, rhythms, and lyrical flavors--would gradually be sucked out. Penn's images--a kind of extended snapshot of a whole class of people, once integral to the running and maintenance of the great cities of the civilized world--are like an elegy, or an ode to a past that is hardly recognizable anymore, a world of settled function, reliable performance, fixed adaptations. The high contrast between the dense, almost doomed quality of these platinum-palladium images, and our hygienic, scrubbed remoteness from the world they represent, is devastating. Penn's approach is both respectful, and imperious. These people are like artifacts in an archeological file from the 20th Century, except that we're too close to them to remain untouched by their pathos. We're only two generations away from their world, a world which, of course, in many respects, still exists, in much of the so-called "Third World."