Paul Strand Artworks
American Photographer and Filmmaker
New York City
Orgeval, Yvelines, France
Progression of Art
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.
Platinum palladium print
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.
Silver Gelatin Print
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.
Gelatin Silver Print
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.
Gelatin silver print