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Irving Penn, Muscle Builder (A), New York, 1951, vintage gelatin silver print mounted to board, image and paper, 13-1/4" x 10-3/8", 15" x 13" © The Irving Penn Foundation

Photography in Focus

Irving Penn

Muscle Builder, New York

By Kimberly Jones

In the summer of 1950, American photographer Irving Penn began a series of full-length portraits of skilled workers holding their tools and donning their occupational dress, culminating in the series Small Trades. This significant body of work, which Penn started in Paris and continued in London and New York over the following year, drew inspiration from Eugène Atget's Petits Métiers (trades and professions) series. Butchers, pastry chefs, balloon and onion sellers, and chair caners alike posed against Penn's trademark mottled backdrop—a repurposed Parisian theater curtain—with the same distinguished presence as his couture fashion models.

Like many of his images, Muscle Builder, New York (1951) evidences Penn’s formal concerns as an artist: the lines formed by a body in space, the tension in the subject’s pose, and the graphic quality of light that anchors the composition. The subject’s muscular structure is magnified by Penn’s use of his beloved north light, which, as he said, created a penetrating clarity—almost a voluptuousness. The subject looks as if he will spring from the set for a run through the city, à la Rocky. 

Penn’s fascination with making an image that would survive him—and one that would hold the power to touch people he would never personally encounter—is illustrated here in the story we tell ourselves about the subject. Simultaneously modern and timeless, this photograph evokes both power and vulnerability from the sitter, reminding viewers, nearly 70 years later, of the continuum of humanity.

Essays — Photography in Focus: Irving Penn, Apr 1, 2020