The subjects of the velvety black-and-white images aren’t exactly Irving Penn’s elegantly dressed or undressed regulars: a plump maid with her bucket and brush; a bespectacled seamstress draped in her tape measure; a scuba diver disappearing in his helmet and monstrous suit.
But Mr. Penn considered these portraits of blue-collar workers, called “the odd jobs,” among the most important of his long and influential career. He started taking them in the summer of 1950 for Vogue, the magazine with which he has become synonymous, and now they have finally found a home together in a museum. On Wednesday, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles announced that it had acquired the entire series, 252 full-length portraits of workers ?? waiters, bakers, butchers, ragpickers ?? that it was Mr. Penn’s most extensive work.
“This is a set of images that the Getty has been thinking about and wanting to get for several years,” said Virginia Heckert, assistant curator of photography at the Getty, who helped negotiate a deal with Mr Penn, who sold some of the photos and donated others. “Over the past year, he finally managed to get together. It’s a very exciting acquisition for us.
Mr. Penn, now 90, started the portrait project in Paris for a Vogue series about workers in that city. He pursued him for another year after the mission, looking for workers in London and then in New York, where he lived, asking them to come to his workshop in working clothes and carrying the tools of their trade.
Unlike the photographs of August Sander, who took more naturalistic and anthropological portraits of German craftsmen and professionals generally in the places where they worked, the portraits of Mr. Penn, perhaps due to his training as a painter and fashion photographer, are more formal and personal. . He set each subject against a neutral background and tried to use natural northern light.
“There is something quite theatrical about bringing Penn’s subject matter to the camera,” Ms. Heckert said. “They’re basically on a stage.”
But due to the isolated setting, the images also seem to reveal something about people as individuals, not just as officials. “This is really the subject presenting itself in a more intimate setting to its photographer,” she added. “It’s a more psychological relationship between the artist and the subject. She added that at a time when abstraction was becoming the dominant mode in the art world, Mr. Penn’s decision to devote himself to fine art portraiture was important and made the series even more meaningful. “He didn’t want to stray from the topic but find a way to describe it in great detail,” Ms. Heckert said.
Weston Naef, the Getty’s senior curator of photography, said the museum had been working to acquire the series for more than five years, but the sticking point was ownership of the copyright to the images. In many cases, he said, Mr. Penn and Vogue owner Condé Nast share the copyright in Mr. Penn’s images. And the Getty, which had long insisted on granting it copyright in the commercial series, as well as the master set of photographs, ultimately decided to drop the copyright claim.
“It was a real breakthrough for this institution to be able to do it on such a large scale,” said Mr Naef, who added that when it comes to copyright for Mr Penn’s work, “it’s always a complicated story”. (He and Ms Heckert declined to say how much the museum paid for the silver and platinum prints, the sale of which was negotiated by the Pace / MacGill Gallery.)
In recent years, Mr. Penn has engaged in negotiations that have placed important pieces of his work in leading institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. Mr Naef said the Getty made a compelling case that portraits of workers would be well served at the museum, which has extensive collections of Sander’s work, for example, and one of the best collections of photographs in the world. The Getty is planning an exhibition of the images in September 2009.
“We believe he is one of the greatest living artists in all fields,” Mr. Naef said. “And we like to focus on whole bodies of work. We see these images as if they were Monet’s water lilies, a coherent set of works.
And within the scope of Mr. Penn’s work, he said, “They are absolutely seminal. They are like the flags of Jasper Johns or the “suits” of Rauschenberg. ”