Home > Art History, Book Recommendations, Photography, Uncategorized > Book Recommendation – Irving Penn: Small Trades

Book Recommendation – Irving Penn: Small Trades

Pastry Chefs by Irving Penn, Paris, 1950

From Irving Penn: Small Trades, by Virginia A. Heckert and Ann Lacoste, 269 pages.

Irving Penn had stable employment as a fashion and portrait photographer, yet he took time to make portraits of average people working every day jobs.  Penn fit them into his schedule between fashion shoots and portraits for hire.  He hired assistants in Paris, New York and London to find people in public and ask them come as they were dressed and with the tools of their trade.  They were offered a small fee if they came to Penn’s studio to have their portrait made.

Penn was particularly inspired by Eugéne Atget  [1857-1927] whose petits métiers [small trades] works on the streets in Paris were a forerunner to this series of photographs.  Penn was also influenced by German Photographer August Sander [1876-1964] who made similar portraits.  Penn made his own small trades photographs, and the bulk of this series in the was made in a two year span.  Most works are dated 1950 – 1951.  Penn continued to make portraits of local peoples and regional workers through out his career but the work in this book was his most prolific time period for making the small trades photographs.  Penn was a meticulous record keeper, yet the book itself does not name anyone’s portrait; all of the people in the photographs are identified only by their occupation

  1. April 20, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Thanks, Shellie. I’ve always loved Penn’s work. The petits métiers were not known to me. I’m so glad I stumbled onto your blog and your post. If I can find your subscribe button, I’d love to follow you.

    Very best wishes. Elliott (elliottingotham.wordpress.com)

    • April 24, 2012 at 11:11 am

      I think the subscribe thing is up on the top to the left. I occasionally subscribe to my own blog on accident trying to get to the dashboard to update a new post. ^.^’

      If you look at the history of photography in the past century, there is definitely a progression to where photographers could not be specialists anymore. Too many people had access to the technology of photography, film and camera equipment became widespread and affordable to the public, available to hobbyists and average families. Photographers realized they had to go where there was a market for their skills. There is a definite progression with people like Irving Penn, Victor Skrebneski, Annie Leibovitz whose work was pluralistic: having overlaps in fashion and product photography, photojournalism and artistic photography. You get much less of people working in a specific niche like Ansel Adams with his outdoor nature and landscape photography. Maybe today’s niche photographers have become regional like G. Brad Lewis or have the support of a major organization such as National Geographic such as Jim Brandenburg. There are photographers such as Stephanie Sinclair or Taryn Simon who take the most stunning photographs yet classify themselves as photographers or photojournalists and not necessarily as artists.

  2. April 24, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Charming project. Charming Book. Thank you for sharing!

    • April 24, 2012 at 10:36 am

      The two credited editors of the book both had a dialogue about their connections to Penn’s work personally and professionally, and it was stated that Penn felt that many of these ‘small trades’ professions and tools were on the brink of vanishing in the rise of technology. So by 1950, he felt he was seeing the last of people working in these jobs, such as a full-time horse groomer in NYC, a London royal employee in an obscure position to the king, chair caners and more.

      • April 24, 2012 at 10:44 am

        … and letterpress. But we are doing our best to keep THAT one alive! 😉

      • April 24, 2012 at 11:50 am

        Letterpress has gone 2.0. I have been taking a bash at laser cutting letterpress designs and it’s working great. I’m just hand printing my block and pieces, but if you have a an actual press you need to find your local hackerspace or access to a laser cutter. I nabbed photos of letterpress blocks for sale on Etsy and have been hand tracing them, cleaning them up in Photoshop and Illustrator, making them the size I want and bashing them out in acrylic sheets on the laser cutter at Pumping Station: One. A laser cutter will let you cut any letterpress you want. If you want it in wood, it’s all good. Someone just amped up the power of the laser so it can go through thin steel, too.


        A antiques dealer in my ‘hood said the Smithsonian swept through his store and bought out a mass of the letterpress sets he had for sale this past year. I bought a few small brass etched blocks from him. The prices for letterpress blocks and designs are going for a premium on Etsy. Colleges have been amassing them, or at least there is a huge collection in the Book & Paper Arts department at Columbia College. I never got my hands on any of it because that program was separate from Art & Design. The different programs at Columbia College are in competition with each other for student money and trying to get into a class not in the program of your major is like pulling teeth. If you were an Art & Design student and focusing on printmaking, it was likely you could go through a whole four years of college and never go into or use the letterpress studio once. If there is even a seat available in a class you want or if it was even running, getting into anything outside of your program was a multi-layer paper chase.

        I am watching Columbia College’s current downsizing and reorganization process with interest. There is extra pressure because Dr. Zafra Lehrman sill has her $5 Million discrimination case against the school. The different departments of the school are set up like warring Medieval feudal states and it hurts students who want to diversify their education. I have heard the Book & Paper Arts department is bankrupt; photography is being combined with Art & Design. I think it should all be under the same banner as visual arts, and probably absorb digital programs as well. I refused to take a digital imaging class in Art & Design because it was well documented on RateMyProfessors.com that all the instructors were incompetent and did not know the programs. I made the head of Art & Design sign off so I could take the class in the Interactive Arts & Multi-Media department. It was probably the one class where I learned the most AND learned anything current.

        Anyway, back to letterpress: colleges that have hoarded letterpress resources like this may have to open enrollment or make access available to more people because they are not raking in as much money as they are used to. The small, insular Book & Paper Arts program was never financially solvent as I hear it. It would be smart if the college got a clue and opened up access for people -or even their own students- to take classes. My friend got into a paper making class an I was all like “WOW, how did you pull that off?” It shouldn’t have to be that hard.

        Some printmaking collaboratives in Chicago also have in-house letterpress collections. If you can afford the membership fees to join a collaborative for access, it is worth it.

      • April 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm

        A sad day it will be if all letterpress paraphernalia is locked up behind closed doors where people have to pay money just to LOOK at the stuff or pay outrageous prices to touch it. Letterpress isn’t alive unless it is being printed, made, used — if it is, then it is alive. If not, then it is a dead or dying art. Viva letterpress!

      • April 25, 2012 at 11:56 am

        Some collaboratives cost a couple hundred a month for access but provide a studio, some are more non-profit and you can pay as little as $20 a day for access to the studio space and printing materials they have. I am going to look into Spudnik Press in Chicago because they are more in my price range. I’ve been pretty screwed since graduation in 2010 with no way to burn a large silkscreen. That’s why I been relief printing at home with linocuts. Printmaking collaboratives hat are non-profit and geared toward public access and education seem to be popping up more. Artist communities need them.

      • April 25, 2012 at 12:25 pm

        This is encouraging news. Good luck at Spudnik Press and with the silkscreening!

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