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Paul Strand, the son of immigrants from Bohemia (now western Czechoslovakia), was born in New York City on 16th October, 1890.
Strand was given his first camera by his father when he was twelve years old. Two years later he joined the Ethical Culture School where he was taught by Lewis Hine, who at that time was involved in a project photographing immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Strand joined Hine's extra-curricular course in photography. Hine also took Strand to the Photo-Secession Gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue and introduced him to the work of Alfred Stieglitz, David Octavius Hill, Julia Margaret Cameron, Gertrude Kasebier and Clarence White.
A member of the the Camera Club , Strand worked for an insurance company after graduation in 1911. However, two years later he became a self-employed commercial photographer in 1911. He worked closely with Alfred Stieglitz, who was a strong advocate of what he called Straight Photography. In 1916 Strand's photographs appeared in Camera Work and Stieglitz wrote that "Strand is without doubt the most important photographer developed in this country since Alvin Langdon Coburn."
During the First World War Strand was a member of the Army Medical Corps. After the war, Strand collaborated with Charles Scheeler on the documentary film, Mannahatta (1925). Strand continued with his work as a motion picture cameraman when he worked on the film The Wave (1933).
With the onset of the Depression Strand became active in politics. A committed socialist, he worked with he Group Theatre that had been formed in New York by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg in 1931. The Group was a pioneering attempt to create a theatre collective, a company of players trained in a unified style and dedicated to presenting contemporary plays. Members of the group tended to hold left-wing political views and wanted to produce plays that dealt with important social issues.
In 1932 Strand was asked by the Mexican government to run the department of film and photography at the Museum of Fine Arts. In 1935 Strand visited the Soviet Union with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford where he met the radical film director, Sergi Eisenstein. When Strand returned to the United States he began to produce socially significant documentary films. This included The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), his film on trade unions in the Deep South, People of the Cumberlands (1937) and Native Land (1942).
In 1936 Strand joined with Berenice Abbot to establish the Photo League in New York. in 1936. Its initial purpose was to provide the radical press with photographs of trade union activities and political protests. Later the group decided to organize local projects where members concentrated on photographing working class communities.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York held a full-scale retrospective of Strand's work in 1945. The Photo League, like many radical organizations, was investigated by the House of Un-American Activities Committee during the late 1940s. This led to members being blacklisted and Strand decided to leave the United States and live in France.
Strand published a series of books including Time in New England (1950), France in Profile (1952), Un Paese (1954), Mexican Portfolio (1967), Outer Hebrides (1968) and Ghana: An African Portrait (1976). Paul Strand died on 31st March, 1976.
Paul Strand - History
Paul Strand still remains one of the most well-regarded of all American photographers. Even many years after his passing, he maintains a following. His work was firmly rooted in the modernist movement and the passion that many still have for modernism ensures his work is always appreciated and continues to reach a new audience. His followers and critics strongly believe Strand’s work contributed enormously to photography becoming taken seriously as a legitimate form of art.
Paul Strand was born on October 16, 1890, in New York City. He grew up in relatively humble beginnings to immigrant parents. When he was in his late teens, he would discover a profound love for art. Strand enrolled at Ethical Culture Fieldston School and went on to study art and photography from Lewis Hine, a well-respected documentarian during the silent era.
Hine took his students on a field trip to the 291 art gallery which was on 291 Fifth Avenue in New York City. The gallery was very popular until it closed in 1917. When Strand visited the gallery, he was taken aback by the many stunning modernist photo presentations on display. From this point forward, Strand began to take his study of art and photography very seriously. He drove himself to be a true standout as an artist.
Strand’s Photography Style
The work of Strand was quite interesting. On one end of his artistic spectrum, Strand attempted to use his work as a means of social reform. On the other end, he experimented in abstract photo art, which was quite atypical of a concept. Strand also had an affinity for traditional portrait painting, although he is not as well known for his traditional paintings as his photography.
Life in New Mexico and Mexico
Strand traveled frequently to New Mexico where he created a great deal of artwork. He also made many friends in the art community in New Mexico and this allowed him to draw support from his peers to further expand his creative horizons. Strand eventually traveled to Mexico where he captured a great deal of Mexican culture and the nation’s landscape in his photographs, too.
Venturing into Films
Strand entered his first foray into filmmaking at the behest of the Mexican government when he made a documentary about Mexican fisherman. Later, in New York City, he filmed a project about high rises in New York City. The film, Manhatta, led Strand to concentrate mainly on film and theater while he lived in New York.
Strand’s Later Years
Around 1943, Strand was living in New England and he started creating photo art. In 1949, he moved to Orgeval, France, where he lived for 27 years. During this time period, he heavily invested his time in his artwork and produced a number of interesting works.
He traveled quite a bit around Europe and North Africa while creating numerous popular photo books. He passed away on March 31, 1976, at the age of 85.
A writer and filmmaker as well as photographer, Paul Strand was born in New York. His family sent him at age fourteen to the progressive Ethical Culture School, where he took a course in photography from Louis Hine. Hine introduced him to the Photo-Secession group and to Alfred Stieglitz, who became, for a while, a friend and mentor. After several odd jobs, including work in a slaughterhouse, and a two-month stay in Europe, Strand became a commercial photographer in 1911 . Strand’s education, the influence of Stieglitz and the “ 291 ” exhibitions, as well as his political experiences—he moved to France in the 1950 s to flee McCarthyism—combined to create his view of the importance of human agency in the world.
New England, in particular, was an ideological touchstone for him. Writing of the region’s attraction, and its historical role in protecting the rights of man, he stated: “ From the very start, New England was a battleground where intolerance and tolerance faced each other. … I was led to try to find in present-day New England images of nature and architecture and faces of people that were either part of or related in feeling to its great tradition.” Strand’s Maine and Vermont photographs were an attempt to record a place that he believed embodied the core values of New England and, therefore, of the nation.
Paul Strand is an American photographer and filmmaker, who over a period of six decades dedicated himself to light and structure. His work depicts his love and respect for humanity, cultures and people. Strand’s unique work in the field of photography and filmmaking covers different genre and subjects from different areas of world like America, Europe and Africa.
Born to Bohemian parents on 16 th October 1890, Strand spent his early years in New York City. He studied at Ethical Culture Fieldston School, New York, under the tutorship of Lewis Hine, a renowned documentary photographer. He was always interested in photography but his visit to Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen‘s Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue with Hine, made him consider his photographing hobby seriously.
Member of Camera Club, Paul Strand started working in an insurance company after his graduation in 1911. Though he became a self-employed commercial photographer in the later that year.
Strand dedicated himself to photography and under the guidance of his mentor Stieglitz he focused his work on three principles: movement in the city, abstraction and street portrait. In 1916, his early work like Wall Street appeared in Camera Work. Stieglitz praised his early work, as “Strand is without doubt the most important photographer developed in this country since Alvin Langdon Coburn.”
Paul Strand became involved in motion pictures along with photography over the period. In 1921, in collaboration with Charles Sheeler, Strand released his first film, Manhattan, a silent movie about the daily life of New York. In 1936, he produced another motion picture Redes, for Mexican government which was released in U.S. as The Wave.
He worked on other motion films such as, The Plow that Broke the Plain (1936), People of Cumberlands (1937) and Native Land (1942). Strand worked as a committed socialist he made these significant documentary films highlighting the important social issues.
Strand was the founding member of the Photo League (1936). Initially, this league was set up to provide the photographs of political protests and trade union activities to the radical press. Later, it also focused on capturing working class and local projects.
He married Rebecca Salsbury in 1922. After his divorce with Rebecca, he married Virginia Stevens in 1935. They divorced in 1949 and he then married Hazel Kingsbury in 1951. During his last years, he worked in close collaboration with his third wife, Hazel. In 1949, Strand moved to France spending rest of his life there. Along with motion pictures, he focused and photographed many stills in Orgeval, France.
Some of the books published by him include Time in New England (1950), France in Profile (1952), Un Paese (1954), Mexican Portfolio (1967), Outer Hebrides (1968), Living Egypt (1969) and Ghana: An African Portrait (1976).
Paul Strand received many awards and honors in the last twenty years of his life including Honor Roll of the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1963, David Octavius Hill Medal in 1967, and Swedish Film Archives Award in 1970. Major retrospectives of his work were held at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum in 1973.
He spent six decades of his life working as photographer, filmmaker and a social activist. Paul Strand died after long illness on 31 March 1976, at his home in Orgeval, France.
Paul Strand’s Portraits of Modernity: 1960s Ghana
If you’ve ever taken a course on the history of photography, you know Paul Strand. He’s recognized as a master of the medium, and he’s known, among other things, for helping to solidify photography as an art form when that topic was still up for debate. What you might not know about is his travel work. Though his early photography is more commonly referenced, his later projects, in-depth “portraits” of specific places, are the culmination of a lifetime of practice.
Strand pursued these “place portraits” for the last three decades of his life, electing to photograph locations where he felt “really compelling things were happening.” The projects were typically conceived as books and viewed as a whole they serve a larger purpose. “If you look at all of these travel projects together, they add up to a portrait of the 20th century,” explains Peter Barberie, the Broadsky Curator of Photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art which is featuring a retrospective of Strand’s six-decade career in an upcoming exhibition.
Of all the places Strand worked—New England, France, Italy, the Hebrides, Romania, Egypt, Morocco—Barberie posits that his time in Ghana in 1963 and 1964, which resulted in the book Ghana: An African Portrait, yielded some of his most comprehensive travel work. He suggests that Strand felt the same way, referencing a letter where Strand wrote that in Ghana, he “felt he had gone deeper into his subject than maybe anywhere else.” This was partly because Strand felt welcome there. He was officially invited to document the country by its first prime minister and president, Kwame Nkrumah. He was given a guide (whom he actually dismissed) and a driver, Bannerman Smith (who then served as his guide), to accompany him and his wife Hazel through Ghana’s diverse landscapes, easing his access to situations that might have otherwise been difficult to broach.
With its recent independence from colonial rule, Ghana was an ideal location for Strand. Things were changing quickly there, and he was interested in Nkrumah’s efforts to modernize the country through industry and economic initiatives. “Strand was really drawn to the way photography can show the past and the present working together, struggling around each other. He was interested in the specific history of individual people in individual places, and part of the way to show that was to show the present emerging from the past,” explains Barberie.
There were several motifs that Strand sought—landscapes, architecture, portraiture, street scenes, artifacts such as crafts, and details like rocks and foliage. “Through the ‘20s and ‘30s he gathered these motifs and realized if he used them all together, this is what allowed him to make a portrait of a place,” says Barberie.
Strand wanted to show us that “modernity isn’t about just one thing, not about being in a cafe in Paris, or on Madison Avenue, or on an airplane going somewhere,” explains Barberie.
“I often compare a photo of a student with books on her head and another photo of an elderly woman from the northern part of the country. The woman is identified as a political leader and she explains, in the course of her interview, that she regrets that she’s never had time to learn to read and write. So if you’re looking carefully, you realize that between the portrait of the girl in Accra with the books on her head and the women in the northern part of the country, you can see what it’s like in Ghana and where these two different people have come from. That’s really special access to that time and place, and very few photographers took the time to give us that kind of encounter with that kind of place and people.”
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How Paul Strand Photographed the “People’s History”
When Howard Zinn first published A People's History of the United States in 1980, he hoped to start a “quiet revolution” in the way people viewed history. By giving voice to the voiceless relegated to the wings of history while major players dominated the stage, Zinn wrote history in a wholly new, revolutionary way. Just as Zinn gave those people a voice, photographer Paul Strand gave them a face, but more than 60 years before. Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art traces the development of one of the founding fathers of modern photography in search of democratic ideals not just in his native America, but all around the world. Viewing the world through Strand’s lens will renew not just your faith in the power of art, but also your faith in the human spirit’s resilience regardless of time or place.
Strand’s long been recognized as part of the holy trinity of modern American photography along with Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. With such canonization sometimes comes complacency in interpretation—in Strand’s case, justified praise for his early work but unfair silence regarding later projects. This exhibition represents the first retrospective of Strand’s work since the 1970s, which also began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1980, Strand’s estate donated almost 500 prints from that exhibition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Since 2009, the museum’s dedicated itself to acquiring almost 4,000 more prints and other items, thus making The Paul Strand Collection at the PMA the single largest Strand collection in the world. Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography celebrates that collection’s realization as much as the artist himself.
From the very beginning, Strand learned to link politics and photography. In 1907, Strand signs up for a class at the Ethical Culture School in New York City titled “Nature Study and Photography” taught by the progressive sociologist-photographer Lewis Hine. Hine took Strand and the class to visit Alfred Stieglitz’s “291” Gallery, an experience that, Strand would later claim, inspired him to become a photographer. Strand soon entered Stieglitz’s circle of artists, formed friendships with Georgia O'Keeffe and others, and studied new art movements coming over from Europe such as Cubism.
The young photographer then set out on a series of “experiments” with photography—itself a young, growing medium—up to the end of the 1920s. Amanda N. Bock, one of the curators of the exhibition, describes this time in her catalog essay as Strand’s “painstakingly slow and methodical exploration of genres”—everything from landscapes to “still lifes verging on abstraction.” Walking through this section of the exhibition you feel the restlessness of Strand’s eye as he moved from the strikingly honest “street portraits” taken of unaware subjects to the iconic, “Hopper before Hopper” Wall Street.
What holds this period together is Strand’s growing sense of modernism, both as an esthetic and as a human condition. Not for Strand was socially disengaged abstraction or just as disengaged “ironic street photography,” Peter Barberie, chief curator of the exhibition explains in the catalog. “For Strand,” Barberie writes, “realism could be woven out of fact or fiction, or both, but it had to say something tangible about the world.” The most “tangible” element in Strand’s early 20 th century world was the increasing wave of modern machinery, which simultaneously excited with new promise and threatened with self-destruction. For the rest of his life, Strand pursued that modernism in different places and different people around the world.
Shocked by his own “street portraits” in 1916, Strand gave up portraiture almost entirely until the 1930s, when he traveled to Mexico and stayed for 2 years to photograph not only the local people, but also the bultos or devotional statues in their churches. Using the same prolonged exposure (sometimes up to an hour) that allowed him to milk every detail from his nature studies, Strand photographed these dramatic wooden statues of Christ’s passion to reveal every detail of the fabrics and even the spots where faithful fingers had worn away paint over the years.
Strand’s own prolonged exposure to the humanity of these people revealed to him new truths about the reality of modernism. “Attuned to modernity’s distinct inflections in different locales,” Barberie explains, Strand “wanted to show how time and history had shaped the present moment of each place he photographed… The realism he advocates involves, in his words, a dynamic approach to everyday life that engages the changing world, avoids treating subjects as immutable or timeless, and represents to ordinary people the conflicts and heroism of their own lives.” The search for that everyday heroism in the face of the challenges of modernism became Strand’s own heroic quest.
The exhibition gives ample room for us to follow Strand on his quest. Strand’s first book project, Time in New England (published 1950), explored the nature of American modern democracy in the cradle of American democracy itself. Strand and collaborator Nancy Newhall selected texts such as the last letters of condemned anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to pair with the photographs of New England people and scenes to “evacuat[e] text and image of canonical and clichéd signifiers and giv[e] these concepts by threading them into a kind of ‘people’s history’ of the region,” argues Bock. The Great Depression’s effects on American culture and inequality radicalized Strand’s already leftist tendencies, leading him not only to such works as Time in New England, but also to leave American in 1950 for France, where he would live until his death in 1976. “McCarthyism” had not yet chilled free speech in American, but Strand sensed early on which direction the political winds were blowing.
Both Barberie and Bock understandably tread lightly when it comes to Strand’s politics. Barberie calls Strand “undogmatic” politically, whereas Bock prefers “many degrees of left” to describe Strand’s ranging from FDR “New Deal” devotee to Communist curious. But I tend to see Strand as “political” in the original, ancient sense of the word, as pertaining to citizens rather than attack ads and gridlock. Bock quotes Strand idealizing over “an artist who is also a citizen,” something that he aspired to throughout his career all the way from the streets of New York City to Europe and finally to Egypt and to Ghana just as that sub-Saharan country was taking its first steps toward democracy in the 1960s. When you look at a picture such as The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis) (shown above), taken during Strand’s time photographing the people of the Italian village of Luzzara, you could easily mistake these five brothers and their mother as Americans. The similarities are strong enough that nationality doesn’t even matter anymore. Strand evolved from American citizen to world citizen but never lost his sense of patriotism for the American democratic ideal he challenged his home country and all others to live up to.
Unlike so many other photography exhibitions that feel like you’re witnessing a disembodied eyeball at work, Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography makes you feel the presence of the artist throughout. The final room contains the actual cameras Strand used as well as photographs of him at work through the years, but it is the artifacts of his travels, such as the annotated map he and his wife used to navigate Ghana, that give you the full effect of his quest. Viewing the exhibit can be an exhausting experience simply from the intensity of this humanity that compels you to look closer at everything from the portraits to doorways dilapidated with character. Interactive kiosks that allow you to virtually page through Strand’s books now long out of print at first seem like modernist intrusions, but I could easily imagine Strand himself, ever the modernist, enthralled with the displays. Such a combination of humanism and modernism is the exhibition’s most fitting tribute to the artist.
Although Strand usually worked slowly in composing his images, one scene during his trip to Ghana made him impulsively snap away at a bus rolling by featuring the words “Never Despair” on the back. Those two words could be the emblem for all of Paul Strand’s life and work. “We like to photograph people who have strength and dignity in their faces,” Strand said of his and his wife’s work in Italy, “whatever life has done to them, it hasn’t destroyed them. They still have their own kind of humanity.” Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography demonstrates that no matter what happened to Paul Strand—even self-imposed exile—he kept his “own kind of humanity” that never despaired when Fascism, Communism, and even McCarthyism threatened democratic citizens at home and abroad. At a time when everything from Ebola to ISIS makes you question your faith in this modern world, Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography provides a beautiful reminder of what really matters and why it will always endure.
[Image: The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis), 1953 (negative) mid-late 1960s (print). Paul Strand, American, 1890-1976. Gelatin silver print, Image: 11 7/16 x 14 9/16 inches (29.1 x 37 cm). Sheet (irregular): 11 3/4 x 15 1/16 inches (29.8 x 38.3 cm). The Paul Strand Collection, purchased with funds contributed by Lois G. Brodsky and Julian A. Brodsky, 2014. © Paul Strand Archive/Aperture Foundation.]
[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for allowing me to attend the press preview for and for providing me with the image above and a review copy of the catalog to the exhibition Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography, which runs through January 4, 2015.]
Paul Strand Artworks
Wall Street is an historically significant image, both for Strand and for the development of photographic art. It marked a clear departure from a style of soft-focused Pictorialism (practiced hitherto by Strand) whereby the photographer used a camera and dark-room manipulation to produce images that mimicked that rather unfashionable (by modernism's standards) painting style. The image provides an early example of Strand's willingness to accommodate documentary realism and abstraction within the same frame. On the one hand, Strand offers the spectator an objective, 'straight', record of a street scene showing walking pedestrians as the sun elongates their shadows on the other, we have a high contrast interplay of light and dark as the shadows formed by the niches of the large Morgan Trust Bank building produce a slanting geometric pattern.
Unlike his contemporaries, such as Alvin Langdon Coburn and Karl Struss who emphasized activity and movement in their urban images, Strand's approach was more deliberate and as such he typically focused his images on slower movements and static scenes. Indeed, with Wall Street in particular, Strand was shocked that he was able to get such a sharp image of the moving people considering how slow the plates took to process. It is said that Edward Hopper became fascinated with this image, and adopted some of the same formal techniques for his own paintings.
During the summer of 1916, Strand vacationed at a rented cottage in Twin Lakes, Connecticut. Inspired by the European avant-gardes, and the Cubists especially, he had already reached the conclusion that "All good art is abstract in its structure" and he began to explore the question, posed by the European painters, of "what a picture consists of, how shapes are related to each other, [and] how spaces are filled". Using everyday items, including kitchen furniture and crockery, and fruit, Strand used his large plate camera to transform - or elevate - the mundane utilities into pure two-dimensional patterns. The resulting collection did in fact include some of the very first purely abstracted photographic images. Porch Shadows exemplifies this way of working. On close inspection, we might deduce that the object in question is no more than an ordinary round table placed on a terrace porch. But Strand alters our perception by firstly rotating the image. The geometric shapes meanwhile - thin stripes, parallelograms and a large triangle - are created in the shadows and light brought to the composition by the strong sun as it penetrates the slats of the terrace window.
Blind Woman, New York
Strand believed that the furtive nature of authentic urban portraiture was both vital and morally justifiable: "I was attempting to give something to the world and not exploit anyone in the process" he said. This early portrait, first published in Camera Work, was taken in Five Points, the heart of the immigrant slums on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and is indicative of Strand's socialist and artistic mission. It shows a desolate woman in medium close shot. Around her neck hangs a hand-painted sign that alerts us to the fact that she is "BLIND", and above which, a numbered badge pinned to her black smock identifies her as a licensed newspaper vendor. Her attention is drawn to an event outside the frame, and though she is blind, the photograph confirms that she is oblivious to the camera's close proximity. Indeed, in order to achieve portraits of such arresting quality Strand devised a strategy whereby he rigged his camera with a false lens that pointed forward, while the working lens was actually placed at a ninety-degree angle and hidden from the subject's view under his arm.
In his influential book The Ongoing Moment in which he looked at photographic trends, Geoff Dyer suggested that the blind women's off-centre pupils reflected Strand's own skewed lens set up and that, moreover, the blind subject was more generally "the objective corollary of the photographer's [own] longed-for invisibility". In any case, practical and moral complications notwithstanding, Strand maintained that the task of portraiture was to "almost bring the presence of that person photographed to other people" and that, though the 'ordinary' subject has been all but anonymous till now, the spectator is "confronted with a human being that they won't forget". This photograph "immediately became an icon of the new American photography, which integrated the humanism of social documentation with the boldly simplified forms of modernism" according to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Percé Beach, Gaspé, Québec
In 1929, Strand took a trip to Canada with his wife, Rebecca Salsbury. While there, he produced this landscape. Though Percé Beach meets the principal criteria for a landscape, we can find aesthetic correspondences here with his more iconic Wall Street photograph (produced 12 years earlier). In this photograph, rather than a building, a large body of water dominates the frame it is the cliffs, that enter from the left side of the frame, that this time cast their shadows over a body of sea (rather than pavements).
In a statement that seems at first a little incongruous, Strand spoke of color in his photography. He was of course shooting in black and white, but it was his practice to use papers with color tint (while bemoaning the fact that "everytime I find a film or paper that I like, they discontinue it") that imitated the atmosphere of the location at which he was shooting. In this case Strand used paper with the cold blue tones that had matched his experience on the Percé Beach shoot. In keeping with his fascination of 'how spaces are filled', moreover, Strand was of a mind that a balance of weight and air in the photograph was the most important compositional factor. The weight is created by dark tones in rocks, rooves and boats the idea of air being expressed by the light in the sky and as it is reflected on the surface of the sea. When one looks for evidence of Strand's commitment to represent the lives of ordinary people, meanwhile, we find a workers' narrative in the bottom foreground of the frame. We see small figures, this time 'dwarfed' by the forces of nature (rather than man-made architecture), grappling with a large fishing boat. It is unclear if the fishermen are about to set sail, or if they are preparing to moor their vessel, but the spectator is left in little doubt of its importance to their lives and livelihoods.
Through Native Land Strand wanted to expose civil liberties violations in America during the 1930s. The film focused specifically on the bill of rights which had come under attack from corporations who, amongst other things, used spies and contractors to undermine and dismantle labor unions. The film, both 'a call to action' for workers and a timely reminder to them of their constitutional rights, was co-directed by Strand and Leo Hurwitz (a signed-up, and later blacklisted, member of the Communist Party), and featured a narration by prominent African-American singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson.
Best described as a 'semi-documentary' (or 'docu-drama') Native Land integrates newsreel footage (including scenes from the so-called Memorial Day massacre of 1937 in which Chicago police killed ten striking protesters) with a fictional narrative (a story about the subjugation and murder of sharecroppers whose union has been secretly infiltrated). In keeping with the artistic and ideological traits of Strand's worldview, moreover, Native Land sought to challenge the classical Hollywood narrative by taking the ordinary American laborer and turning him from subordinate or comedy figure into the plot-carrying hero. At the time of the film's release, the influential New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther hailed Native Land as "one of the most powerful and disturbing documentary films ever made". However, the unfortunate timing of the film's release, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour, meant that the country was seeking unity and had little appetite for socio-political self-examination.
The Lusetti Family, Luzzara, Italy
The Lusetti Family represents Strand's late period (after he had resettled in Europe) and features in his book Un Paese, Portrait of an Italian Village, which was published in 1955. The photograph marks an interesting divergence from his American portraiture (such as Blind Woman, New York) inasmuch as his subjects now posed for Strand's camera. Strand had accepted an invitation from the Neorealist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini to visit the Italian's agricultural hometown of Luzzara, in the northern Po River Valley. Once received into the Luzzara community (Strand stood in the central town square every day until they became used to his presence) he spent two months photographing the village - once a stronghold for anti-fascist resistance - and its inhabitants. One of his sitters, a young farmer's daughter named Angela Secchi, later spoke of her experience: "He [Strand] grabbed a large hat off my uncle's head and put it onto mine, he then took my uncle's scarf and an old, rumpled smock and told me to wear it on top of my dress. He wanted me to look like a poor country girl". This manufactured tourist's view of village life jarred somewhat with Strand's 'Straight' aesthetic.
It was then incumbent on Zavattini to provide prose that would give Strand's images their socio-political bent. The Lusetti family portrait is comprised of a mother and five of her eight sons all of them WWII veterans. Their blank, pained expressions do indeed hint at some collective trauma. However, the image only takes on tangible meaning once we learn that four of the mother's children had died in infancy, while her husband, the boys' father, a local communist partisan, had been clubbed and beaten by Fascist assailants on two occasions before being killed in active service. An unwanted irony of the project was that only one thousand copies of the book were produced and at a premium ("People were amazed because the book cost the same as a bicycle" Secchi said later) that put them beyond the meagre budgets of the villagers.
Anna Attinga Frafra, Accra, Ghana
For the last of his geographical series, Strand visited Ghana where, with the cooperation of then President Kwame Nkrumah (deposed two years later), he spent three months between 1963 and 1964 photographing the country and its people. However, the book, Ghana: An African Portrait, featuring a companion text by the Africanist scholar Basil Davidson, was not published until 1976 (four years after the death of Nkrumah). According to the African Studies scholar Zachary Rosen, the aim of Strand's project was to reveal Ghana as "a new African nation of peoples poised for industrial ascension" though Strand was able to show his respect for Ghana's heritage simultaneously via a series of juxtapositions in which the images of technological and economic advancement sat beside images in, and of, more traditional and natural environments. It was Strand's belief that the job of the documentarian was to describe the lives of ordinary people. He declared: "The People I photograph are very honorable members of this family of man and my concept of a portrait is the image of somebody looking at it as someone they come to know as fellow human beings with all the attributes and potentialities one can expect from all over the world". One can see this humanist philosophy in practice in his portrait of the young student, Anna Attinga Frafra. Wearing a white sleeveless shirt, she is positioned in front of a plain white wall. Plant fronds intrude from the left side of the frame but the spectator's eye is drawn to the detail of the three textbooks she is carrying on her head. When Rosen argued that Strand had managed to avoid the trap of producing "patronizing anthropological photographs" he might well have had an image like this in mind one that captures the personality of a subject who came to symbolize a progressive thinking and independent African state.
Paul Strand’s Sense of Things
Called upon to describe the photographer Paul Strand not long after his death, in 1976, his friend Georgia O’Keeffe chose two adjectives: “thick and slow.” She intended this as a compliment, if a slightly backhanded one: Strand was deliberative and thoughtful, in work as well as in life. His photographs invite contemplation and reflection, presenting us with objects brought patiently within the picture plane. There are tales of him taking three days to craft a single print ideas and subjects could be pondered for weeks, sometimes years. More than one critic has compared Strand to the Quattrocento frescoist Piero della Francesca. Famously, he was doubtful of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of a fleeting and impromptu “decisive moment.” “With me it’s a different sort of moment,” he said wryly, in a 1974 New Yorker Profile by Calvin Tomkins
“Rebecca, New York,” 1921. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
© Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
Forty years after Strand’s death, a full-scale retrospective that began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in 2014, and has recently arrived at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London, offers a chance to reassess a long and remarkably varied career that stretched from the world of gum bichromate to the early digital era (not that Strand went anywhere near the latter, preferring his redoubtable eight-by-ten Deardorff and five-by-seven Graflex). The show encompasses two hundred or so objects, ending with Strand’s exquisite studies of lilacs and vines made in his garden at Orgeval near Paris in the years before his death and stretching all the way back to his faltering attempts at fogbound, neo-romantic landscapes in the nineteen-tens.
In those early years, it was under the tutelage of the documentary photographer Lewis Hine, as a teen-ager at the Ethical Culture School, in New York City, that Strand went about finding his voice. At the behest of Hine he visited, in 1907, the nascent 291 Gallery, where avant-garde work by Matisse and Picasso rubbed shoulders with experimental photography. The gallery’s charismatic founder, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (who, years later, would marry O’Keeffe), took an interest in the quiet young man and urged him to keep taking pictures. Strand’s photo of a snow-covered Central Park, caught in 1913–14, was an austere exercise in texture and silhouette, a solitary tobogganist disappearing into the distance. A justly famous photograph of Wall Street, from 1915, captured not the raw hustle of the city but the stark embrasures of the Morgan Bank, whose sinister geometry dwarfs the few scattered commuters beneath. Stieglitz’s 1917 description of Strand’s photography—“brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam devoid of trickery and of any ‘ism’ ”—not only articulated what was brilliant about the young man’s work but helped to make his name.
Yet directness was only one side of Strand’s achievement it is as often the layers and subtleties of his pictures that hold the eye. Though Strand was excited by modernism after seeing the revolutionary Armory Show in 1913, and made a Cubist-style series of still-lifes in Connecticut over the summer of 1916, his photography remained firmly rooted in time and place. His numerous images of rock formations—the earliest of them made in Nova Scotia, in 1919, a much later group in the nineteen-fifties, in the Outer Hebrides—are compositionally rigorous but sensual and almost sculptural in their texture: it’s hard not to reach out and stroke them. His repeated studies of doors and windows are, at one level, intellectual exercises, with their multiplying recesses and frames within frames, but they are shot with such attentiveness and care that they invite the viewer in. Strand must be one of the only photographers in history who can make the broken-down wooden struts of a New England hayloft into an object of mystical beauty.
“Blind Woman, New York,” 1916. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
© Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
Strand’s eye for people, too, was remarkably undeviating. His uncomfortably intimate New York City street portraits from 1916 (which he shot, somewhat reluctantly, with a hidden camera lens) are renowned for portraying the alienation of modern life—but what’s equally interesting is how they prefigure the portraiture he went on to make. “Mr. Bennett” (1943), featuring a Vermont farmer, and “The Mayor, Luzzara” (1953), showing the crisply suited capo of an Italian town, were taken with the sitters’ consent, but they are as confrontational and unblinking as the haunting “Blind Woman” from decades before. Strand had little interest in color, and preferred to work in large formats rather than surrender to the cramped constraints of thirty-five millimetres. In the work of some photographers this uniformity might provoke tedium in Strand’s there is the powerful sense of an artist striving to bring reality into harmony with the purity of his vision.
For a portion of his career, this most patient of still photographers concentrated on making stridently political films. Having collaborated with the painter Charles Sheeler on the experimental short “Manhatta” (1921), he worked intermittently as a specialist cameraman, lugging his Akeley movie camera between sports events and movie locations. In the mid-thirties, he helped to establish the New York Photo League, acting as a mentor to young photographers who shared the group’s ambition to use the medium as a tool for social change. It was through the League that Strand began to work with documentary-makers, meeting Sergei Eisenstein on a tour of the Soviet Union and co-founding Frontier Films, an outfit dedicated to making conscious-raising dramas like “Redes” (1936), about a Mexican fishing community, and “Native Land” (1942), a Paul Robeson-narrated investigation of the struggles of labor organizers.
“The Mayor, Luzzara,” 1953. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
© Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
After the Second World War, Strand grew increasingly uncomfortable with the anti-left-wing atmosphere being whipped up by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in February, 1950, he departed for Paris with his third wife and collaborator, Hazel, in what would become a permanent relocation. The last American project he completed was the pioneering photo-book “Time in New England.” Despite the lucid serenity of its images—a drowned world of larch cladding, elegant windows, and stone walls in snow—the subtext of the book, that America was in grave danger of losing touch with its founding principles, echoes loud and clear. In his later decades, criss-crossing Europe and North Africa, Strand continued to produce work that had a subtle but unmistakable political undertow. 1955’s photo-book “Un Paese,” compiled during a residency in Luzzara, in Emilio-Romagna, Italy, finds a wariness in the faces of the town’s farmers and factory workers that bespeaks the tumult of Italy’s recent history. “Tir a’Mhurain” (1962), a seemingly peaceful series of images of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, gains a new dimension once you realize that the book was printed in East Germany and that the islands were at the time being considered as the site of a NATO missile range. The book was forbidden to enter the U.S. unless it bore the stamp “Printed in Germany, U.S.S.R.-occupied.”
“The Happy Family, Orgeval,” 1957. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
© Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
In that series, as in so much of his work, Strand is compellingly hard to place as an artist. He was, alternately, a crafter of burnished, timeless imagery and a proto-modernist obsessed with abstraction a social realist and a fiercely political social activist. But perhaps these paradoxes are a mark of his durability. What’s striking, above all, is how quickly Paul Strand pictures began to look like Paul Strand pictures—and how definitively they remained that way, no matter the subject at hand. Time and again, one finds oneself marvelling at his ability to suffuse common objects with the sensation of real life—an iron kitchen stove washed in warm light, or a bright scattering of flowers next to a dark screen of lichened rock. Strand was a photographer of many gifts. Making the stone look stony was perhaps his most enduring.