Working in London, Paris and New York, Irving Penn photographed the Small Trades between 1950 and 1951, when he was thirty-three years old.
The format, similar throughout - whether the sitter is a butcher, fishmonger or chimney sweep, is full length, frontal and invariably standing. Penn has created masterful representations of skilled trades people dressed in work clothes, with markers of their occupation. A neutral backdrop, often an old theatre curtain, and natural light set the stage on which his subjects present themselves - an atmospheric 'visual nowhere' that Penn was instrumental in popularising as a staple of fashion photography. John Szarkowski, former director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, commented that Penn's portraits claimed people were interesting enough they did not need to be photographed with the support of a glamorous backdrop.
Conveying a striking nobility, Penn's compositions, organised like scientific typology, present both order and simplicity; typical of his 'signature blend of classical elegance and cool minimalism.', Andy Grundberg, International Herald Tribune, 9 October 2009. The sitter, a specific individual, stands in for a group whilst simultaneously enjoying splendid isolation from the real world. Imbued with calm and decorum, Penn had a talent for picturing his subjects with compositional clarity and economy, witnessed also within his fashion photography. 'His models were never seen leaping or running or turning themselves into blurs… rather, transformed within the quieting frame of his studio camera into the graphic equivalent of a Greek frieze.', Andy Grundberg.
Small Trades became vastly significant in the advancement of Penn's career, and evolved into his most extensive body of work. There are over two hundred images within the series, printed in both the original gelatin silver and platinum palladium. In 2010 Hamiltons exhibited a selection of the platinum palladium prints, which was the first Small Trades exhibition in Europe, following the Getty Museum's landmark acquisition and exhibition in 2009/10.
The Getty Museum published an illustrated book of the series in 2009. Over two hundred images are reproduced, alongside an insightful interview with Edmonde Charles-Roux, who assisted Penn on the project.