Goodness: It’s a quality you probably appreciate in your mum. But in an artist? We’re taught from an early age to admire art’s bad boys and girls, from Caravaggio via Picasso to Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. They have the coolest lives and make the best copy. But the photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976) was, unerringly, a good man. And his images, of New York City streets, remote rural communities, even crocuses in his back yard, are inseparable from his humanity.
This extra moral dimension gives you something unusual to grapple with at the V&A’s staggeringly beautiful retrospective. Strand is responsible for some of the defining shots of America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and for helping to elevate photography to an art form. Homing in on the shadows on his porch, or fruit in a bowl, he made what are regarded as some of the first abstract photos of all time.
Yet, especially in these fledgling works, you sense a tussle between Strand’s creative aspiration and his social conscience. It’s there in his iconic shot of Wall Street commuters, taken in 1915 (pictured above). Strand was trying to understand cubism and how to create a modern image for a modern world. However, with its anonymous proles dragging their long shadows in front the stark edifice of the JP Morgan building, the modern world he describes is one of subservience and alienation. He was no sentimentalist, though. A year later, in upstate Port Kent, he photographed a traditional white picket fence and clapboard house so that the fence slices the picture in half while the house is a maddening blur in the background. It’s a fairly unequivocal skewering of the American dream and its restrictions.
Always concerned for the everyman, Strand is moral without being moralising. And his work often possesses an awkward, touching sensuality – whether he’s photographing the nape of his wife’s neck or the inner workings of his beloved Akeley movie camera (and perhaps those two images are indicative of somewhat divided loyalties). Strand doesn’t seem to have gelled with people especially well. He got through three wives (though the show doesn’t go into detail about matters of Strand’s heart). And he adopted some fairly tabloid-y tricks to capture his quarry, including using a decoy lens to photograph people off-guard as he patrolled the New York pavements. Later, in order to get the perfectly lit shot, he demanded his subjects sit still for arse-aching amounts of a time, which may explain the fury in the eyes of ‘Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France’ (1951, pictured left).
Strand lived long enough to see motorcars replace horses and buggies on the Manhattan streets, to witness the Great Depression, and to be hounded out of his country under the anti-communist paranoia of the McCarthy era. He wound up in France, becoming a kind of Monet figure, devoted to his garden, but before that he sought out communities in Italy, Egypt, Morocco, Ghana and the Outer Hebrides, places either escaping colonial rule, trying out socialism for the first time, or clinging to a traditional way of life.
At one point singing drifts through the galleries. It’s a recording of a haunting Gaelic folk song delivered by a Mrs Archie MacDonald of South Uist, whose photo Strand took when he visited the Scottish islands in the mid-1950s. Don’t expect multimedia bells and whistles, though. This show is really all about the photos – and there are nearly 200 of Strand’s small, inky prints to pore over, as well as his notebooks and sketches. There are flashier photo shows in London. This one requires patience. It is restrained, respectful, dignified, like Strand himself. But it’s better than good, it’s moving and magic.