Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century

Art, Photography
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 (Paul Strand: Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France, 1951. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation)
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Paul Strand: Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France, 1951. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
 (Paul Strand: White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation )
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Paul Strand: White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
 (Paul Strand: Wall Street, New York, 1915. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation)
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Paul Strand: Wall Street, New York, 1915. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
 (Paul Strand: The Family, Luzzara, 1953. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation)
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Paul Strand: The Family, Luzzara, 1953. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
 (Paul Strand:  New Mexico, 1930. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation)
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Paul Strand: New Mexico, 1930. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
 (Paul Strand: Milly, John and Jean MacLellan, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954.  © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation )
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Paul Strand: Milly, John and Jean MacLellan, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
 (Paul Strand: Blind Woman, New York, 1916. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation)
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Paul Strand: Blind Woman, New York, 1916. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
 (Paul Strand: Couple, Rucăr, Romania, 1967. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation)
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Paul Strand: Couple, Rucăr, Romania, 1967. © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

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. 

By: Martin Coomer

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Tastemaker

This is a show for fans of influencial photographers, history and photography in general. It's probably not a show for someone who wants to see lots of stunning pictures in itself. It's more about the process and understanding an iconic photographer's journey through his lens.


There is a lot to see here and a few short films to watch too, so take your time and enjoy the journey. Strand clearly led a full life, travelling across the world to study, what seems to be mainly countries going through social change. As you move from the Hebrides, to Egypt to Italy, to Africa, it's fascinating to see the contrasting places at similar periods of time in history. In each country he offers a brief snapshot of life in these exotic places.

As a professional photographer, I also enjoyed seeing the different quality of his work and understanding some of his technical processes. I would like to have had a little bit more information about his journeys in the different countries. I was left wondering how he got there, for how long and with whom he travelled (if anyone?). I was curious to know about his relationship with the publishers and how he went about producing all his fantastic books.


But overall I enjoyed this, a great collection of photos, an understanding of Paul Strands life and work and some really interesting films that observes some harsh realities of war.



tastemaker

Paul Strand for me is one of the great and influential photographers of the 20th century, guiding us into modernism. This is first Strand exhibition in the UK for nearly 40 years, so really quite special. 


My advise is to be patient with the exhibition, take time to appreciate and understand the somewhat harshness of his simplistic compositions. He had an overwhelming interest through his life in the authenticity of character, and small communities. There are many images from his trips, The Outer Hebrides, South America and Africa to name a few. He spent many months getting to know the community and creating these truly beautiful, poignant pictures. 


For me this exhibition is all about his early photographs circa 1915, in particular the New York street photographs, they have such a brutal honesty through their unstaged composition. The Exhibition is coming into it's final fortnight at the V&A so do check it out, on until the 3rd July.