07 November 2010 Life

If it’s in black and white, is art colourblind?

I went to a photography exhibit at the Musée d’Elysée in Lausanne yesterday with my dad. Called “Les Petits Métiers”, the exhibit showcased dozens of portraits taken in 1950-52 by Irving Penn. The photographs themselves are mildly interesting, but what is really fantastic is the sheer variety of job descriptions - “longshoreman”, “cucumber vendor”, “rag and bone man”, “parking attendant”, “charwoman”, “busboy”, and the list goes on.

Seeing all the different jobs - from “chief constable” to “coal man” - presented with a consistent artistic theme has an equalizing effect. All of Irving Penn’s subjects were photographed with the same backdrop, in the same style, no matter what their social status.

Also on display were some copies of magazines that featured Irving Penn’s work. The picture to the left, above, was accompanied by the following caption in the February 1951 edition of Vogue Britannica:

MAN WITH A PICK, the best-known figure in the industrial scene. The odd-job navvy - in cap, strong boots, oldest clothes for heavy work, scarf knotted at the throat, features and bearing often cast in much the same mould of dignity and patience as those of that other heavy manual worker, the coal-miner.

Imagine Vogue today, covering the fashion trends of, say, working-class Fort McMurray! How bizarre.

Sam Nabi

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