The Ordinary Made Beautiful: Irving Penn at the Getty


 "Irving Penn's Studio" in Paris, 1950. c. Irving Penn

"Irving Penn's Studio" in Paris, 1950. © Irving Penn.

by Caroline Newman

Irving Penn’s “Small Trades” is a body of work consisting of 252 images currently on display at the Getty Center until January 10, 2010.  “Small Trades” is a series of portraits that meticulously explore blue-collar workers and their occupations in the 1950’s.  Penn is best known for his fashion photography and his work for Vogue magazine.  This exhibit, which covers a different and complete body of Penn’s work, explores printing processes, composition, and subject matter.


Irving Penn (Irving Penn; © 1951, restored 1996 Condé Nast Publications, Ltd.) "Milkman," New York, 1951.

Most of the images on display are either platinum/palladium prints or silver gelatin prints. One of the rooms in the exhibit focuses purely on the process that Penn used.  The difference between the palladium versus the silver gelatin is especially noticeable when one print of each process is placed next to another.  The palladium prints yield a much warmer, softer, and elegant look than the silver gelatin.  Penn’s decision to use palladium prints allows every crease and cuff to be visible to the viewer.  Palladium prints cause the richness of black and white to go beyond the plane of the paper, giving the photo a three-dimensional feel.  These photos have to be seen in their original form in order to be appreciated and to fully understand the aesthetic differences that result from different processes.


Irving Penn (Irving Penn; © 1951, restored 1996 Condé Nast Publications, Ltd.) "Fireman," London, 1950.

Penn has created a level of detail and three-dimensional effect that is more than beautiful.  It feels as if you are in the same room as the subject.  Highly focused on composition and form in his photos, Penn placed all his subjects in front of the same worn, grey backdrop.  Beauty, three-dimensional appearance, and meticulous attention to detail are apparent in every photograph.  Such details as the perfect spiral made by the rolled up fire hose, the sharp pleats in the French waiters apron, and the intricately painted “Fromages” on the box carried by the cheese salesman, all demonstrate Penn’s eye for sleek, simple, rugged, and natural beauty.

The uniform background and full body shot of his subjects cause the photographs to be read as typologies.  Every photo serves as a study of a specific “type” of work.  Penn gathered his subjects from the streets of New York, Paris, and London and brought them to his studio to photograph them.  The subject matter is not important to the overall effect of the image. By extracting the subject and placing them in Penn’s studio, we are able to focus purely on the beauty, character, and form of each subject with no distractions. Never before have I seen an artist portray the ordinary person in such a monumental and honest way.

Irving Penn’s “Small Trades” clearly demonstrate why Irving Penn is viewed as one of the great masters of portraiture photography of all time.  Other great artists in this area of photography are Richard Avedon, August Sander, and Eugène Atget.  Like Penn, Avedon started doing fashion photography and then moved into fine art portraiture. Both Sander and Atget photographed lower-class workers around the same time, except they kept their subjects in their working environment.  Penn’s use of the studio environment provides a level of art from the ordinary that must be seen to appreciate.

4 Responses to “The Ordinary Made Beautiful: Irving Penn at the Getty”

  1. interesting

  2. 2 dolceved

    I heard about this on NPR. Great article

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