Paul Strand - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer and Filmmaker
New York City
Orgeval, Yvelines, France
Biography of Paul Strand
Nathaniel Paul Stransky was born in New York to German-Jewish parents in 1890. Father Jacob Stransky presented his son with his first camera when he was just twelve years old, though his son's interest in photography wasn't to blossom until he had left high school in 1907. Upon graduation Strand joined his father's enamelware import business but he used his spare time to attend a photographic club at the Ethical Culture School run by renowned social documentarian Lewis Hine. Strand decided on his future following a club field trip to Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen's 291 Gallery. Inspired by the visit, Strand was emboldened to seek feedback on his own work from the older Stieglitz who encouraged Strand with "very great criticism" from which he "learned an enormous amount". That visit, along with the influence of Hine's socialist outlook, represented a pivotal moment for Strand who, aged 17, declared his intention to become "an artist in photography".
Education and Early Training
Strand and his first wife Rebecca Salsbury (they were married in 1922) were often seen with Stieglitz and his wife Georgia O'Keeffe. Strand had in fact exchanged several romantic letters with O'Keeffe before she married Stieglitz and the two couples became close friends. By the late 1920s however complications in their personal relationship surfaced following romantic trysts involving Salsbury and both Stieglitz and O'Keeffe. Strand's professional relationship with Stieglitz dated back however to 1915 when Strand's soft-focus pictorialism drew stinging criticism from Stieglitz, the ardent modernist. Strand realized that if he was to be taken seriously as "an artist in photography" he would have to develop a signature technique of his own. He acknowledged as much in the following quotation: "You may see and be affected by other people's ways, you may even use them to find your own, but you will have eventually to free yourself of them. That is what Nietzsche meant when he said, 'I have just read Schopenhauer, now I have to get rid of him'". Indeed, as a direct result of Stieglitz's earlier criticism - not to mention his undoubted aesthetic influence - Strand spent two years developing the style that was to become known as Straight Photography. It seems it took Strand rather longer to refine his art however. Responding later in his career to the view put by fellow photographer Minor White that it took twenty years to become a photographer, Strand suggested that that might be "a bit of an exaggeration" and that becoming a professional photographer really "does not take any longer than [the eight or nine years] it takes to learn to play the piano or the violin". Strand quipped "If it takes twenty years [then] you might as well forget about it!".
Strand declared that the "measure of [an artist's] talent - of his genius, if you will - is the richness he finds in such a life's voyage of discovery and the effectiveness with which he is able to embody it through his chosen medium". It was a measure of his own talent then that he became revered as a figure who had set out some of the very provisos on which modernist photography would be defined. Stieglitz had in fact been so impressed with Strand's artistic maturation that he adopted the Straight Photography aesthetic for his own work. Strand knew he had 'arrived' when, in 1917, Stieglitz gave him a major exhibition of his own at the 291 Gallery and then allotted the last two issues of his photography magazine Camera Work entirely to Strand's work. Writing around the same time, Strand published an article entitled 'Photography and the New God' in which he summed-up the 'Straight' philosophy as follows: "[through its] pure and intelligent use [the camera can] become an instrument of a new kind of vision, of untouched possibilities, related to but not in any way encroaching upon painting or the other plastic arts".
On the back of his role as medical cinematographer, Strand was inspired in 1921 to collaborate with the painter and commercial photographer Charles Sheeler on a short, silent film called Manhatta (AKA: New York the Magnificent). The film, which documented the bustle of every day street life under the architectural shadows of the looming New York skyline, reflected Strand's aesthetic preoccupations and is considered by some to be the first American avant-garde film. It was a little later however that Strand's approach became more transparently political. He made Redes (The Wave) in 1934 (documenting the economic problems faced by a Mexican fishing community), and, with the American filmmaker Pare Lorentz, The Plough that Broke the Plains in 1935 (a film that addressed the Dust Bowl situation facing the Great Plains region of the United States and Canada following a period of uncontrolled agricultural farming). Soon after, in 1936, Strand joined with American photographer Berenice Abbott to set up the Photo League, a group of photographers committed to the aim of raising social awareness of trade union activities and civil rights protests. Four years later, Strand co-directed with Leo Hurwitz, Native Land, a civil-liberties themed 'docudrama', narrated by the prominent African-American singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson. Native Land was in fact produced under the auspices of Frontier Films, a pro-labor, anti-fascist, collective, formed by Strand in the late 1930s.
Strand acknowledged that "life is so complex" that the artist is presented with "all sorts of possibilities". That being the case, he maintained that the said artist should be able to avoid doing "the same thing over and over again" (albeit that that was "one of the dangers that all artists face"). Based on that conviction, the late period in Strand's career brought a new dimension to his oeuvre. His photography, while still produced according to the codes of his 'Straight' aesthetic, relied on prose and/or poetry to give them a fuller meaning. The new tone was set in 1950 with the publication of Time in New England. The book was edited by the American photography critic Nancy Newhall who had matched Strand's images with an anthology of New England writings dating from the 17th century to the present day. In the same year, Strand moved to Orgeval in France where he settled with his third wife, Hazel Kingsbury (having been married to his second wife, Virginia Stevens, between 1935 and 1949). Between his arrival in Orgeval, and up to his death in 1976 (he had never made the effort to learn to speak French), Strand embarked on a series of overseas projects. His visits to Italy, Egypt, Morocco, Romania, the Outer Hebrides and Ghana gave rise to a series of photo-geographic books featuring people, landscapes and text. He collaborated, for instance, with Claude Roy on La France de profil (1952); for Un Paese (1955) with the Italian neorealist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (Bicycle Thieves); and for Ghana: An African Portrait (shot in the early 1960s but not published until 1976, the year of his death) Strand's images were enriched by the words of the Africanist scholar Basil Davidson.
The Legacy of Paul Strand
In 1984 Strand was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame (IPHF) on the endorsement that he had photographed the everyday world "with precision and truth". Whether or not one chooses to eulogize Strand as the sole architect of Straight Photography, there can be no doubt that his photography helped cultivate the idea that it was only the camera that could show the world in such detail - only a machine could represent the world with such clarity and with such purity - and that, in the right hands, photography could hold its own within the bigger modernist program.
Writing in his book The Photograph, the scholar Graham Clarke expressed the opinion that Strand should be placed in a group including Stieglitz and the other 'Straight' adherents associated with the f/64 Group: namely László Moholy-Nagy, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Robert Capa, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. According to Clarke, this select cadre of photographers helped promote the impression of the modern photographer as an 'inspired philosopher who transforms a dull literal reality into something new and ideal'.
What distinguished Strand from his peers, however, was his attempts to combine the philosophical elements of Straight Photography with a strong socio-realist plan. Indeed, Strand himself baulked at the romantic vision of the modern artist as virtuosic genius. He said as much in his 1946 obituary for Stieglitz when he spoke, not as a single artist, but rather as part of a collective including fellow activists Abbott, Zavattini, British historian Basil Davidson, American film director Joseph Losey and Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid. His legacy might be best summed up then by Strand himself when he wrote: "We realize as perhaps he [Stieglitz] did not, that the freedom of the artist to create and give the fruits of his work to people, is indissolubly bound up with the fight for the political and economic freedom of society as a whole".