Dignified portraits of proud tradesmen

text: Taka Kawachi


Irving Penn (1917-2009) began his career as a photographer in 1943. For nearly 60 years, he engaged in portrait, fashion and still life photography and became one of the most renowned photographers of the 20th century.
One remarkable series from his early career is called “Small Trades”. The title refers to the bakers, firefighters, street cleaners and other skilled workers of the city. Penn started the series in Paris in 1950, on an assignment by Vogue magazine, and finished it in 1951.

Irving Penn’s series “Small Trades," photographed in Paris, London and New York in the 1950s.
The photobook, published to accompany an exhibition at the John Paul Getty Museum in LA (September 2009 - January 2010), includes 206 portrait images of skilled laborers in the three cities and draws out differences and similarities between the cultures.
Irving Penn, Small Trades Published by The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009 ©J. Paul Getty Trust

Penn is said to have been inspired by the series “Petit Métiers” (literally “Small Trades” in English) by Eugène Atget, the ‘father of modern photography’ who immortalized Paris at the turn of the century. However, while Atget’s photographs are as much documents of Paris’ people as its streets and buildings, Penn’s series differs in its fundamental approach. Penn invited his subjects to pose for him inside his studio, wearing their usual working clothes and carrying tools used in their trade. The resulting photographs show each subject in their natural, everyday self and let us feel the pride they took in their work.

The photographs are taken against a gray backdrop (one of Penn’s signature trademarks) and are lit exclusively by sunlight entering the studio through its north-facing window. The simple background gives birth to a brilliant effect, accentuating each subject’s characteristic gestures and expressions — from butchers in bloodied aprons and bakers holding self-made bread to newspaper boys and firefighters.
According to some sources, Penn’s photographs were originally taken in a square format but then trimmed left and right to emphasize the clothes and human figures of each subject. In any case, these are photographs brimming with potential for discovery. Simply looking at the worn-out clothes or the battered tools alone lets us envision the habits and lifestyles of the era.

After Paris, Penn continued photographing the series with workers in London and in his hometown of New York before publishing the images as a series, choosing straightforward titles for each photograph (“Cheese Monger, Paris, 1950,” “Newspaper Seller, London, 1950” or “Steel Mill Firefighter, New York, 1951”).
Before opening the “Small Trades” photobook, you may expect stiff, unnatural poses — Penn’s models were amateurs, after all — but quite the contrary, any photograph you could pick shows a relaxed person with a vivid expression, as if caught during a cigarette break. The whole series speaks of Penn’s incredible talent and sensibility to find these moments of overflowing humanity.

Inevitably I begin to wonder, if Penn had had the chance to include Tokyo in this series, which workers of which professions might he have chosen, and how would he have portrayed them?

Taka Kawachi

Benrido, Overseas Division Director

Taka Kawachi has extensive international experience, having graduated from the Academy of Art University of San Francisco, to then working in New York City as a book editor and curator for 15 years. Returning to Japan in 2011. In 2016, Kawachi published his first book “Art no Iriguchi (Entrance to the Arts) ”.His publications illustrate his experiences of art and photography, and offer readers an opportunity to engage with the history and subjects of both regions from his unique point of view. He is currently the Director of the Overseas Division of Kyoto’s Benrido, working to disseminate the classic and rare photographic process of Collotype, and produced portfolios of Saul Leiter and J.H. Lartigue, etc. His latest publication is “Artists: Masters of Architecture and Design” (Akatsuki Press).

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