Irving Penn - Photographs London Tuesday, November 23, 2021 | Phillips
  • '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.'
    —Irving Penn 

    ULTIMATE IRVING PENN (lots 1-10) showcases a carefully curated selection of 10 exceptional platinum-palladium prints from master photographer Irving Penn’s (1917-2009) iconic Small Trades series. Taken in 1950-51 and self-printed in 1967 – the year in which Penn perfected the platinum-palladium process – these long sold-out works have been in the same private collection for over a decade and are appearing at auction for the first time. Of the 10 Small Trades photographs, four were taken in London and six were taken in New York. The working men and women represented here are widely varied, including vanished trades like tinker (lot 2) and iceman (lot 7), a period ‘barber with his well-oiled hair and toothy smile’ (lot 9) and a glamourous Rockette (lot 5). The extraordinary calibre of these 10 featured works is a testament to Penn’s standing as one of the most acclaimed artists of the 20th century.


    Small Trades (1950-51) – Penn’s most extensive body of work – is a collection of striking full-length portraits, taken in Paris, London and New York, of workers with the clothes and tools of their trades. Collectively, the images celebrate and refresh the centuries-old printmaking tradition known as small trades, street cries or petits métiers. While Eugène Atget’s portraits of tradesmen at the turn of the century and the social documentary work of Walker Evans were also key influences, Penn chose to isolate the subject in the neutral space of his studio over the vernacular setting of the street. He later recalled, ‘I preferred the limited task of dealing only with the person himself, away from the accidentals of his daily life, simply in his own clothes and adornments, isolated in my studio. From himself alone I would distill the image I wanted, and the cold light of day would put it onto the film.’ The studio setting with his signature, mottled grey backdrop provided a sense of timelessness to the portraits. Asking his sitters to occupy the space as they wished, Penn allowed their personalities to slowly emerge under his patient eye. 


    Irving Penn’s London Small Trades portraits in Vogue Britannica, February 1951. Credit: Condé Nast.

    After photographing the tradespeople of Paris in the summer of 1950, Penn travelled to London in September to continue the Small Trades project. He noted the different attitudes of the workers in Paris and London: ‘The Parisians doubted that we were doing exactly what we said we were doing … but they came to the studio more or less as directed – for the fee involved. But the Londoners were quite different from the French. It seemed to them the most logical thing in the world to be recorded in their work clothes. They arrived at the studio, always on time, and presented themselves to the camera with a seriousness and pride that was quite endearing.’ In the February 1951 issue of Vogue Britannica, 24 of Penn’s London portraits were published in the article ‘Small Trades’, which began: ‘What is the smallest component part, the unchanging eternal element in the life of England? The butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker … the man we know so well we take him for granted, the artisan, the tradesman, the man with a craft which he has perfected throughout his life.’ Each photograph was accompanied by an individualised caption: the one for Engine Driver (lot 3) read, ‘the small boy’s hero; the set of cap and cigarette jaunty, his grip on the oil can firmly skilled and sure.’ 


    Following his London visit, Penn returned to New York that autumn and continued his work on the Small Trades project into the first half of 1951. Once again, he observed that the workers in New York responded differently to being photographed than did the workers in Paris and London: ‘In spite of our cautions, a few arrived for their sittings having shed their work clothes, shaved, even wearing dark Sunday suits, sure this was their first step on the way to Hollywood.’ As Jeff Rosenheim notes in Irving Penn: Centennial (2017), Penn expanded his exploration of tradespeople to include ‘more esoteric subjects’ such as ‘a gun-toting hunter in full-length winter fur’ (lot 4) and ‘a Rockette straight from Radio City Music Hall’ (lot 5). The New York portraits were published in the July 1951 issue of American Vogue as a 12-page portfolio within the essay ‘America, Inc.: A Gallery of the Unarmed Forces’, which began: ‘If the nobility and gentry are wise they will look at these pictures with attention and respect, for here are some of the people who have made America in the material sense, and to no small extent in the spiritual sense, too.’


    Irving Penn’s New York Small Trades portraits in American Vogue, July 1951.
    Credit: Condé Nast.

    After originally publishing the Small Trades photographs in the pages of French, British and American Vogue, Penn embarked on a multiyear research project to learn about platinum printing, which was a popular printing process at the turn of the 20th century for its rich tonal range and fine detail. Increasingly, he had become dissatisfied with the way in which his photographs appeared in magazines, describing the print as a ‘thing in itself, not just a halfway house on the way to the page.’ Penn’s extensive experiments led him to the platinum-palladium process, which enabled him to create prints with remarkable subtlety, richness of tone and sensuous textures that were dramatically different from glossy gelatin silver prints. A meticulous craftsman, Penn mixed, coated, exposed and developed all the platinum-palladium prints himself, revelling in his new-found ability to manipulate each image to his liking. Perfecting his technique in 1967, he reprinted his Small Trades work in platinum-palladium, imbuing warmth to his subjects and transforming his images into luminous works of art. Throughout his career, Penn remained deeply interested in the printing process and the many ways in which a single negative can be rendered.


    In 2008, Penn spoke with the deepest respect and empathy for the daily lives of working men and women, describing his Small Trades photographs as ‘residual images of enchantment.’ The transformation of the Small Trades from their initial magazine appearance to their rigorous reinterpretation as platinum-palladium prints reflects Penn’s own career from Vogue photographer to one of the most influential artists of his generation. Since the creation of Small Trades, most of these professions have all but vanished, ensuring the legacy of Penn’s emblematic series not only as a major artistic achievement but also as a historical record of our civilization.

    • Provenance

      Pace/MacGill, New York, 2008

    • Exhibited

      Irving Penn: Small Trades, Getty, Los Angeles, 9 September 2009 - 10 January 2010, another

    • Literature

      V. Heckert & A. Lacoste, Irving Penn: Small Trades, Los Angeles: Getty, 2009, pl. 59

    • Artist Biography

      Irving Penn

      American • 1917 - 2009

      Arresting portraits, exquisite flowers, luscious food and glamorous models populate Irving Penn's meticulously rendered, masterful prints. Penn employed the elegant simplicity of a gray or white backdrop to pose his subjects, be it a model in the latest Parisian fashion, a famous subject or veiled women in Morocco.

      Irving Penn's distinct aesthetic transformed twentieth-century elegance and style, with each brilliant composition beautifully articulating his subjects. Working across several photographic mediums, Penn was a master printmaker. Regardless of the subject, each and every piece is rendered with supreme beauty. 

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Hunter, New York

Platinum-palladium print, printed 1967.
Image: 42.7 x 32.1 cm (16 3/4 x 12 5/8 in.)
Sheet: 57.5 x 46 cm (22 5/8 x 18 1/8 in.)

Signed twice, titled, dated, numbered 5/5, variously annotated in pencil, Condé Nast copyright credit reproduction limitation and edition stamps on the verso.

This work is number 5 from the edition of 5. As of this writing, the other prints from the edition are held in various private and institutional collections, including the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Full Cataloguing

£40,000 - 60,000 

Sold for £81,900

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London Auction 23 November 2021