Paul Strand (1890-1976) was one of the most important figures in American twentieth-century photography. His work is characterized by great richness of surface detail. Strand photographed a variety of subject matter, including landscapes, portraits, architecture, and abstraction. In the 1950s and 1960s, he traveled throughout France, Italy, Egypt, and Ghana, producing a series of photography books.
Paul Strand was born on October 16, 1890 in New York City. He was the only child born to parents of Bohemian-Jewish descent. Strand developed an early interest in photography and enrolled in the Ethical Culture School in 1907. He attended the class taught by Lewis W. Hine, a pioneer in the field of photojournalism. Hine took Strand and other students to visit the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, better known as "291" after its address at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York. There he met Alfred Stieglitz, the leader of the Photo-Secession Group. On display were the atmospheric, soft-focus photographs, by the leading pictorialists of the day. These moody, richly-toned prints aspired to achieve the stature of painting.
Within a few years, Strand was "whistlering," as he called the technique of overlaying a fuzzy Romanticism onto views composed with flattened space, pattern, and high contrast. Other photographers using this style were Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, Clarence White, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Karl Struss. When applied to the rhythms of city life, this "space-filling" approach created highly elegant images, such as "Winter, Central Park" in 1913-14. In this photograph, a tree's dark branches were shown against a snowy field while framing a single figure in the distance.
After graduation and a brief trip to Europe, Strand became a self-employed commercial photographer. He did his own photographic work on the side, experimenting with soft-focus lenses, and generally working in a pictorialist style. His work was exhibited at both the New York Camera Club and the London Salon. Strand brought his portfolio to Stieglitz in 1915 and was offered a show at the 291 gallery.
At the galleries Strand now saw the avant-garde paintings of Picasso, Cézanne, and Braque-which greatly influenced his work. In the next few years Strand was exposed to new abstract painting and sculpture exhibited by Stieglitz, as well as the photography of nineteenth-century masters such as David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron. Strand also saw the works of such contemporary photographers as Edward Steichen. Although he was active for a brief period at the Camera Club, whose darkrooms he continued to use for two decades, Strand's ideas derived first from the people around Stieglitz and then from the group that evolved around the Modern Gallery in 1915, including Charles Sheeler.
Stieglitz and Strand-A Common Influence
From 1915 to 1917, Stieglitz and Strand were in close contact and greatly influenced each other's work. At the end of this period Strand produced a body of sharp-focus work, including somewhat abstracted images of kitchen bowls and cityscapes. Steiglitz recognized the breakthrough this work represented. The last two issues of Camera Work were devoted to the most recent work of Strand. Stieglitz gave Strand a one-man show at the 291 gallery. Strand also exhibited at the Modem Gallery and the Camera Club, and won prizes at the Wanamaker Photography exhibitions.
Strand gradually rejected the soft-focus, manipulated, "painterly" pictorialism that was in vogue in the early 1920s. Instead, he viewed photography as a means for direct statements about life, nature, and the passing scene. In "Blind Woman, New York" (1916) Strand looks uncompromisingly at sightlessness, avoiding any attempt to reduce the harsh impact of eyes that are open but cannot see. He favored the rich detail and subtle tonal range made possible by the use of large-format cameras. The purity and directness of Strand's images of natural forms and architecture foreshadowed the work of other American photographers seeking to express abstract formal values through the un-adorned photographic image.
Strand became known as an advocate of the new realism called "straight" photography. He wrote Photography and the New God in 1917, and claimed that it was necessary for the photographer to "evolve an aesthetic based on the objective nature of reality and on the intrinsic capabilities of the large-format camera with sharp lens," as stated by Naomi Rosenblum in A World History of Photography. During this period, Strand took some of his best known photographs, such as "Shadow Pattern, New York" and "Wall Street" in 1915. Leah Ollman wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "Wall Street" remains the most startling of the group, not just un-romanticized but sinister; not just an image but an icon, a warning, a symbol as well as a document. In the photograph, a trickle of suited men and women, their long shadows dragging behind them, walks alongside the recently built J.P. Morgan Co. building, whose huge, dark recesses dwarf the passersby with the imposing powers of uniformity and anonymity. After more than 80 years, the image has stayed both tough and current." In one of the boldest photographs of the period, "White Fence" in 1916, Strand deliberately destroyed perspective to build a powerful composition from tonal planes and rhythmic pattern. Strand combined realism and abstraction in photographs of landscapes and close-ups of rocks and plants. By doing this he achieved a synthesis in a style he described as organic realism.
Strand was one of the first to use the candid-camera technique. Using a camera with a false lens mounted at a 90-degree angle to the real one, so that his subjects did not know they were being photographed, he experimented with human subjects. Strand extracted "a quality of being" from men and women with disabilities. During the 1920s, he photographed urban sites, continued with the machine forms begun earlier, and turned his attention to nature, using 5 x 7 and 8 x 10 inch view cameras and making contact prints on platinum paper. In these works, form and feeling were inseparable and intense.
Motion Picture Work
Strand served in the Army Medical Corps during World War I, where he was introduced to X-ray and other medical camera procedures. On his return home, Strand worked as a freelance motion picture cameraman, photographing sports and medical films. He collaborated with Charles Sheeler on the short film Mannahatta, released as New York the Magnificent in 1921. He soon purchased an Akeley movie camera and worked as a freelance cinematographer until the early 1930s, when the industry for making news and short features moved from New York to California. While working as a motion picture cameraman, he spent his free time doing still photography, revealing the beauty of natural forms in Colorado in 1926 and Maine in 1927-28. In his photographs of Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula in 1929 and of New Mexico in 1930, he revealed a deep awareness of what he called "the spirit of place." In 1925, Strand was one of the photographers represented in the Seven Americans exhibition at the Anderson Galleries. Also in 1925, he began his famous series of close-ups of vegetation and other natural forms.
The 1930s was a time of political concern and activism for Strand. Aware of the revolutionary social ideas in Mexico through his visits to the Southwest, Strand was appointed chief photographer and cinematographer by the Mexican government in 1933. There he made still photographs and produced the government-sponsored documentary film Redes, (The Wave,) released in 1934. The film depicted the economic problems confronting a fishing village near Vera Cruz. Strand visited the Soviet Union where he met Russian director Sergei Eisenstein and other key Russian avant-garde artists. He futilely attempted to assist Eisenstein in 1935. Strand also worked with Pare Lorentz on the government-sponsored documentary film The Plow that Broke the Plains in the U.S.
A humanist with wide-ranging sympathies, Strand and other progressive filmmakers organized the nonprofit company, Frontier Films, to produce a series of pro-labor and anti-Fascist movies. He was active as a producer for Frontier Films on many projects. Of their seven films, Strand photographed the most ambitious production, Native Land. This film evolved from a congressional hearing into anti-labor activities, and was released in 1941. On the eve of World War II, its message was considered politically divisive. His newsreels became classics, exhibiting the same qualities that marked Strand's still photography: simple subjects, such as windows and doorways, machine forms, driftwood, cobwebs, rocks, the human face, presented with sharp precision and directness, but also with concern for abstract formal values.
During this time Strand also worked in Mexico, gathering images for The Mexican Portfolio, published with hand-pulled gravures in 1940. In 1943, he ended his film production and returned to still photography full-time.
Combined Text with Images
The Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted its first full-scale retrospective of a contemporary photographer with the work of Strand in 1945. Unable to finance film-making after World War II, Strand turned to the printed publication for a format that might integrate image and text in a matter akin to the cinema. From 1946 to 1947 he collaborated with Nancy Newhall on the classic Time in New England, in which excerpts from various texts were joined with Strand's images of New England's artifacts, architecture, and regional attributes, seeking to evoke a sense of past and present.
Strand continued this type of work after he moved to Europe in 1950. His most famous later works were eloquent portraits of peasants and villagers he encountered while traveling in France, Italy, and the Outer Hebrides. Strand produced La France de profil (A Profile of France) with Claude Roy, 1952; Un Paese (A Village) with Cesare Zavattini, 1954; Tir a 'Mhurain: Outer Hebrides with Basil Davidson, 1968; Living Egypt, 1969; and Ghana: An African Portrait, 1976. He closely supervised the second printing of The Mexican Portfolio in 1967.
In 1971, the Philadelphia Museum of Art organized a major retrospective of Strand's work. A two-volume monograph from the years 1915-1968 was published by Aperture. Strand received many awards and honors in the last 20 years of his life: Honor Roll of the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1963, David Octavius Hill Medal in 1967, Swedish Photographers Association and Swedish Film Archives Award in 1970. Major retrospectives were held at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum in 1973. During his last years, Strand worked in close collaboration with his third wife, Hazel Kingsbury. He died after a long illness on March 31, 1976 at his home in Orgeval, France.
In 1990, the National Gallery of Art had a retrospective of Strand's work. His photographs from 1915 through the mid-1970s were exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1992. The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York, exhibited Strand's work in 1998, as did San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art.
Further Reading on Paul Strand
Duncan, Catherine, and Ute Eskildsen, Paul Strand: The World on My Doorstep, Aperture, 1994.
Hambourg, Maria Morris, and Paul Strand. Paul Strand: Circa 1916, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 1998.
Peters, Gerald and Megan Fox, Paul Strand: An Extraordinary Vision, University of Washington Press, 1995.
Rosenblum, Naomi, A World History of Photography, Abbeville Press, 1997.
"Paul Strand," Georgia O'Keeffe: Virtual Library, http://scow.gslis.ucla.edu/students_a-l/aresnick/HTML/gok/strand.htm (April 16, 1999).