"This place has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich." Don Draper was speaking of Sterling-Cooper, but his words could just as well apply to another cauldron of mid-century modern angst, Conde Nast. Art director Alexander Lieberman set the tone for Vogue magazine while moonlighting as a sculptor, producing some of the most brain-dead abstractions ever to be collected dutifully by American museums. (Lieberman is responsible for the "red ziti" on the southeast corner of LACMA's campus.) One of Lieberman's proteges was Irving Penn, a failed painter who scraped the pigment from his canvases and repurposed them as photographic backdrops. Penn turned out to have a genius for fashion photography. He was never entirely content with being a successful commercial photographer, though. Throughout his career, he did "personal projects." The most notable, his "Small Trades," is now on view at the Getty Museum.
Inspired by similar efforts of Atget and Sanders, Penn set out to portray ordinary working people of Paris, London, and New York. In this he was aided and abetted by Lieberman. Some of the results appeared in various editions of Vogue in the early 1950s. Penn's main innovation was to bring his subjects into the studio, in their work clothes, and photograph them against neutral backdrops in natural light.
He awaited the preternatural perfect moment; even his Ballroom Dance Instructors (right) is cleverly stiff, a Laguna Beach-worthy tableaux vivant in which dancer is forever estranged from the dance. Penn kept up the project as time permitted, reprinting negatives over the next decades. The 92-year-old artist died Oct. 7, a month after the Getty show opened. Reading the numerous eulogies, Charlie Finch "asked myself why the work of this universally celebrated master always left me cold and came to the conclusion that it was because of fashion." Finch posed a question not everyone in the art world was willing to ask: "Is fashion photography art?" That's a take on the question still asked outside the art crowd, omitting the word "fashion."
Irving Penn suavely photographed the world's most beautiful models in the most stunning clothes. He did commissioned portraits of society folks and celebrities. Given that hard-to-ignore context, Penn's photos of unbeautiful working stiffs are liable to come off as patronizing. It's not that Penn was ridiculing regular people. It's worse that that: he was patting them on the head and saying, good for you! (I went through the show asking myself, "Why do I think this is slumming when I love Diane Arbus — and don't have any problem with anything she did?" Answer: Haven't a clue.)
In his 1974 publication Worlds in a Small Room, Penn explained,
"In general the Parisians doubted that we were doing exactly what we said we were doing. They felt there was something fishy going on, 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.
"Of the three, the Americans as a group were the least predictable. In spite of our caution, 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."
They made it to Brentwood, anyway. Penn set aside a definitive set of 252 prints that he entrusted to the Getty last year, as a sale and gift. Every single print is on view in this show, maybe the Getty's largest show ever — of anything.