Small Trades is but one of many projects that was completed by Irving Penn (b. 1917 Plainfield, NJ – d. 2009), and one that actually spanned his photographic career. The photographs were created in the early 1950’s in Paris, London and New York. As a body of work, Penn would return to these negatives to continue his investigation of what a photograph print should look like.
The original photographs were made on 2-1/4 x 2-1/4 roll film (Rolliflex), but usually cropped into a vertical image and printed on gelatin silver enlarging paper. Penn has stated that his studies were primary inspired by Eugene Atget’s petits métiers (small trades), early 1900’s photographic studies of workers in their Paris environments. As has frequently been mentioned, the viewer can also find themselves noticing the similarities to August Sander’s “People of the Twentieth Century” environmental studies created in the 1930’s in Germany. Penn on the other hand removed his subjects from their environment to a more neutral sitting located in his studio.
In the 1960’s while investigating the printing qualities of platinum/palladium printing, Penn returned to this body of work to further investigate the potential print qualities of these images. He also found that different negatives could be more expressive in platinum over the earlier gelatin silver paper process. The first image I provide below (Chamois Seller, London, 1950) provides a comparison of these two printing methods. I am not sure if the difference will be apparent on your monitor, but it is apparent in the printed pages of this book. In the book, the cooler silver plates represent his gelatin silver prints, while the warmer plates represent the platinum prints.
As noted in their introductory essay, “Quite often, Penn’s choice of a different negative for the platinum/palladium print triggered a subtle shift from the description of a figure in space to a more fundamental concern with the relationship of figure to space”. The differences between the two printing methodologies are only hinted at in the printing of this book.
In his later printing sessions, Penn would crop the photographic boundaries even tighter around his subject. Then later still, Penn began printing the entire square negative, revealing the edges of the studio and his backdrop which had been cropped out in the earlier versions.
This is a thick and beautifully printed hard cover book. The book was edited by, with an introduction essay, Virginia Heckert with Anne LaCoste. Anne Lacoste also interviews Edmonde Charles-Roux, Penn’s assistant during his creation of this body of work. My review is completed from the book’s second printing, which is virtually unchanged from the first edition.
Note: In conjunction with the Shpilman Institute for Photography (SIP), this review (ארווינג פן – מקצועות קטנים: ביקורת ספר צילום) has been translated into Hebrew, which is available here.