Benoîte Lab, Paris, 1950 @ The Irving Penn Foundation

American photographer Irving Penn, whose images of sculpted beauties transformed fashion photography in the 50s and 60s, also documented the ordinary throughout his career. “Small Trades” at the Lausanne Elysée Museum presents vintage prints of simple folk in their professional attire, revealing the deep cultural differences between London, Paris and New York where the pictures were taken.

Organized in collaboration with the Los Angeles J. Paul Getty Museum, the exhibition at the Elysée Museum in Lausanne is a rare example of art serving history.

The portraits made by Irving Penn between fashion shots for Vogue magazine in the middle of the last century capture the essence of a large scope of proletarian professions, many of which were soon to disappear.

The prestigious Elysée museum in Lausanne has selected 106 vintage prints from the large collection of ‘Small Trades’ by Irving Penn owned by the Getty museum and presents them not in chronological order, but by trade such as the chimney sweeps, shoemakers, delivery men or butchers of Paris, London and New York.

“I have seen these photographs any number of times,” says Virginia Heckert, associate curator of the Getty Museum, “but this exhibition makes me appreciate them all over again.”

In hues of silvery gray, people stand upright in their professional dignity against the walls of the stately mansion of the Elysée that have been painted over in a contrasting and enhancing powder pink for the occasion.

Irving Penn (1917-2009) first trained as an artist and graphic designer before being encouraged by the legendary art director of Vogue, Alexander Liberman, to make the photographs himself of the covers he had designed. His elegant hallmark compositions carved the pages into geometrical patterns.

Inving Penn’s British Vogue cover for June 1950 (not in exhibition), source

He was also known to coax the personalities of his sitters into the frame, from models Lisa Fonssagrives, the Swedish beauty with the 17-inch waist who was to become his wife, to Gisele Bundchen, as well the cultural icons Alberto Giacometti, Truman Capote, Salvador Dali, Duke Ellington, Edith Piaf, Pablo Picasso and Harold Pinter, amongst many others.

The show in Lausanne reveals another side to Penn which Sam Stourdzé, the Elysée’s director, acknowledges will be a discovery to many.

Stourdzé says that Small trades is an equally important part of Penn’s work. He has programmed the exhibition at the same time as one dedicated to Bernd and Hilla Becher who transformed architectural photography with their careful documentation of the vestiges of the industrial revolution, but of buildings, not of people.

“We are launching the season on the theme of the history of photography,” he says.

Small trades offers insight into the organisation of society in the 50s, highlighting the differences between the professions in Paris, London and New York. It also gives an amusing vantage point to national characteristics.

“You get a sense of the unique character of the trades in each of the cities,” Heckert points out, adding that a guessing game to determine the origin of the person pictured can be played.

Irving Penn ‘Small Trades’ in Lausanne: House painters, 1950 @ The Irving Penn Foundation

Irving Penn ‘Small Trades’ in Lausanne: Firefighters, 1950 @ The Irving Penn Foundation

“People in Paris were suspicious and would tend to hide behind their tools to gain confidence,” she explains.

Edmonde Charles-Roux, a young French intellectual and future editor of Vogue France, was assigned to assist Penn in Paris.

She employed the yet unknown Robert Doisneau, as well as the poet, Robert Giraud, better known for his alcohol consumption than for his verse, to “pick” people off the streets for the photo sessions.

It was Giraud who included the contortionists, muscle-builders, cabaret singers (see Benoîte Lab above) and nude models “extending the scope to include the unexpected,” Penn later explained.

Charles-Roux describes in an interview how the sitters at first could not understand why this American would be interested in them.

“But after a week’s work, they suddenly came out of there touched to the quick. All at once they realized that someone was interested in them, in their uniforms, their way of life.”

The British, on the other hand, explains Hackert, would arrive promptly at the sittings impeccably dressed and proud to represent their trades. They had a “formulaic” way of posing, she adds, adopting attitudes expected of their professions.

The most unpredictable were the Americans, she indicates. Because they were being photographed by a “famous photographer”, they were convinced “that they were on the way to Hollywood” and would arrive not in their trades clothes, but in their Sunday best.

While Penn was documenting the archetypes of disappearing trades, he was also recording what he describes as “individuality and occupational pride”, which he believed was “on the wane”.

He was showing, as Heckert, points out, that these “people had a role to play in life”.

Penn chose to extract his sitters from their own environments, as opposed to August Sanders or Eugene Atget, who had inspired him, but who pictured occupations within their context.

He employed the same make-shift studios and half-painted backdrops that he used for fashion goddesses and celebrities to document the men and women in their work apparel or uniforms, holding the tools of their trades. He only worked in natural light coming from the side in order to obtain crispness in the details.

Irving Penn’s makeshift studio as pictured in the Lausanne exhibition

“Taking people away from their natural circumstances and putting them into the studio in front of a camera did not simply isolate them, it transformed them,” Penn explained.

By the mid-60s, Penn decided that a photo on a printed page was “something of a dead end” and became disenchanted with fashion magazines.

He then turned to “the area of manipulation, of control, breakdown, and the reconstruction of the image” by adopting the platinum process of making photographic prints, instead of the classical gelatine silver process.

In the platinum process, the paper first absorbs the light-sensitive emulsion of platinum and palladium salts, before being exposed to a real-size negative under Xenon light. Small trades was one of the first series that Penn revisited to make new prints.

The result, Stourdzé points out, is a higher degree of detail, as well as greater warmth and voluptuousness in the flesh tones. Viewers can appreciate the difference by comparing several prints in both techniques side by side.

“What I call Penn’s American instincts made him go for the essentials,” Alexander Liberman, the Vogue art director said of his protégé. The exhibition in Lausanne is an opportunity to understand what he meant.

Irving Penn ‘Small Trades’ in Lausanne: Chair caner, Paris 1950 @ The Irving Penn Foundation, photo in situ Laird

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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