Christopher Knight makes this interesting point about photographers in his review of the Irving Penn show at the Getty Museum called “Irving Penn: Small Trades”:
A daunting show, given the enormous size, it is also an unusual opportunity for a thorough immersion into one body of work by an influential artist. And it’s strange work. Fashion is often given life by the refined adaptation of street apparel, tribal clothing or workers’ style. Like an anthropologist making an ethnographic study of his own rather than an exotic society, Penn does something similar for formal portrait photography.
Three important 20th century photographers made pictorial catalogs of working-class men and women. French photographer Eugene Atget recorded tradesmen the way he did Versailles’ parks and Paris’ brothels — as signs of inevitable change in the modern era. German photographer August Sander did the same, although he made the documentary aspect of his work crisper, less atmospheric and more dispassionate than Atget did.
For both artists the camera was itself a workman’s tool, his equivalent to the cleaning bucket, tin-snips or carpenter’s hammer wielded by the photographic subjects. Atget was more romantic, filling his pictures with the soft light of long exposures; Sander claimed an objective eye, as if compiling the visual equivalent of a systematic typology.
Yet both created an inescapable analogy between their own labor as a machine-wielding documentarian and the work of the small tradesmen whose pictures they took. Think of them as “tradesmen photographers.”
Art Review: ‘Irving Penn: Small Trades’ at J. Paul Getty Museum (Culture Monster/LA Times)