In 1950, the master photographer Irving Penn began a landmark series of portraits that documented skilled workers of various professions. Called Small Trades, the pictures captured tradespeople of all kinds—street cleaners and headwaiters, ballet dancers and hot dog vendors, basketball players and lorry washers—in Paris, London and New York, all photographed with the tools of their trade and exhibiting visible pride in their work. Penn knew that many of these trades would eventually disappear, and the images created an indelible portrait of work in the mid-20th century.
Pentagram has designed Irving Penn: Small Trades, an important book that comprehensively draws together this famous body of work. The J. Paul Getty Museum acquired the collection from Penn in 2008, and the new book collects in one volume, for the first time, all 252 prints in the series—155 gelatin silver prints and 97 platinum prints. The publication coincides with a major exhibition of the photographs at the Getty Museum.
To create the portraits, Penn’s assistants found the subjects and asked them to come to his studio exactly as they were, wearing their work clothes and carrying the tools of their occupations. The workers were posed against a canvas backdrop and shot with natural light. Penn revisited the series over the following two decades, fine-tuning the images in platinum prints that capture a range of painterly tones.
The designers worked closely with Penn's studio on the book. The design employs an austere mid-century modern aesthetic and presents 210 of the images as full-page reproductions. Captions run at the top, allowing the images to sit on a uniform baseline, emphasizing the consistency of Penn's approach.