His secret was to highlight the features of his subjects by posing them against a simple grey or white backdrop. This simplicity brought an unprecedented sense of drama to his portraits.
While he was mostly known for shooting the photos of famous people like Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Marlene Dietrich, a new exhibit at the Getty Center emphasizes the life of the ordinary worker through extraordinary photos.
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"Irving Penn: Small Trades" series depicts skilled trades people dressed in work clothes and carrying the tools of their occupations.
Knowing that many of these occupations would eventually disappear, Penn began shooting these photos while on assignment in Paris in the summer of 1950.
He would eventually photograph individuals from working-class neighborhoods in London, New York and San Francisco.
"By isolating sitters within the controlled artifice of the studio, Penn proposed and revealed a fundamental equality between them," said Virginia Heckert, co-curator of the exhibition.
"Irving Penn: Small Trades" features 252 photographs and will be open to the public until Jan. 10.
The Getty Center is open Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is closed Monday and major holidays.
Admission to the Getty Center is always free. Parking is $15 per car, but free after 5 p.m. on Saturdays and for evening events throughout the week. No reservation is required for parking or general admission.