Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography
October 21, 2014 - January 4, 2015
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting the first major retrospective in nearly fifty years to be devoted to Paul Strand (American, 1890–1976), one of the greatest photographers in the history of the medium. It explores the remarkable evolution of Strand’s work spanning six decades, from the breakthrough moment when he brought his art to the brink of abstraction to his broader vision of the place of photography in the modern world.
This exhibition examines every aspect of Strand’s work, from his early efforts to establish photography as a major independent art form and his embrace of filmmaking as a powerful medium capable of broad public impact to his masterful extended portraits of people and places that would often take compelling shape in the form of printed books. Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photographycelebrates the recent acquisition of more than 3,000 prints from the Paul Strand Archive, which has made the Philadelphia Museum of Art the world’s largest and most comprehensive repository of Strand’s work.
Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director, stated: “Strand’s achievement was remarkable. The distinctive place he holds in the history of modern photography rests on his extraordinary artistic talent as well as his belief in the transformative power of the medium in which he chose to work. From his early experiments with street photography in New York to his sensitive portrayal of daily life in New England, Italy, and Ghana, Strand came to believe that the most enduring function of photography and his work as an artist was to reveal the essential nature of the human experience in a changing world. He was also a master craftsman, a rare and exacting maker of pictures. We are delighted to be able to present in this exhibition a selection of works drawn almost exclusively from the Museum’s collection, and to share these with audiences in the United States and abroad. Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography will introduce a new generation of visitors to a great modern artist.”
Paul Strand’s career spanned a period of revolutionary change both in the arts and in the wider world. Always motivated by a strong sense of social purpose, he came to believe that depicting the human struggle, both economic and political, was central to his responsibility as an artist. The exhibition begins with his rapid mastery of the prevailing Pictorialist style of the 1910s, reflected in serene landscapes such as The River Neckar, Germany (1911). On view also are his innovative photographs of 1915–17 in which he explored new subject matter in the urban landscape of New York and innovative aesthetic ideas in works such as Abstraction, Porch Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut (1916).
These new directions in Strand’s photography demonstrated his growing interest both in contemporary painting—especially Cubism and the work of the American artists championed by Alfred Stieglitz—and in discovering for photography a unique means of expressing modernity. Strand’s work of this period includes candid, disarming portraits of people observed on the street—the first of their type—such as Blind Woman, New York (1916), and Wall Street, New York (1915), an arrangement of tiny figures passing before the enormous darkened windows of the Morgan Trust Company Building, which illustrates Strand’s fascination with the pace of life and changing scale of the modern city.
During the 1920s—a period often called “the Machine Age”—Strand became transfixed by the camera’s capacity to record mesmerizing mechanical detail. At this time his ideas about the nature of portraiture began to expand significantly. These new and varied concerns can be seen in the sensuous beauty of close-up images of his wife, Rebecca Salsbury Strand, to cool, probing studies of his new motion picture camera, such as Akeley Camera with Butterfly Nut, New York (1922–23). His ideas about portraiture also extended to his growing preoccupation with photographic series devoted to places beyond New York, such as the southwest and Maine, where he would make seemingly ordinary subjects appear strikingly new.
The exhibition looks at Strand’s widening engagement with his fellow artists of the Stieglitz circle, placing his works alongside a group of paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and John Marin, as well as photographs by Stieglitz, who played an important role in launching Strand’s career. These juxtapositions reveal the rich interaction between Strand and his friends and peers during this time.
Over the next several decades Strand traveled widely, seeking always to establish a broader role for photography. The exhibition conveys his growing interest in the medium’s unique ability to record the passage of time and the specific qualities of place, as seen in Elizabethtown, New Mexico (1930), one of many photographs he made of abandoned buildings. It shows Strand returning to a core motif—the portraiture of anonymous subjects—during the time when he lived in Mexico, from 1932 to 1934.
This period abroad had a profound influence on him, deepening his engagement with the politics of the left. Many of the works he created at this time, whether depicting individuals, groups of people, or even religious icons, show in their exceptional compositions a deep empathy. This can also be seen in his series devoted to Canada’s Gaspé Peninsula from the same decade.
By the 1940s, books would become Strand’s preferred form of presentation for his work, reflecting a synthesis of his aims both as a photographer and filmmaker, and offering him the opportunity to create multifaceted portraits of modern life. In his photographs of New England, Strand drew upon cultural history, conveying a sense of past and present in order to suggest an ongoing struggle for democracy and individual freedom. Images of public buildings, such as Town Hall, New Hampshire (1946), and portraits of people he met, including Mr. Bennett, East Jamaica, Vermont (1943), were reproduced in Time in New England. This book was published in 1950, the year Strand moved to France in response to a growing anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S., and reflected his political consciousness. Strand described New England as “a battleground where intolerance and tolerance faced each other over religious minorities, over trials for witchcraft, over the abolitionists . . . . It was this concept of New England that led me to try to find . . . images of nature and architecture and faces of people that were either part of or related in feeling to its great tradition.”
The exhibition also highlights his project in Luzzara, Italy (1953), where he focused his attention on the everyday realities of a northern village recovering from the miseries of war and fascism. This series is centered on images of townspeople, as seen in The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis) (1953), and fulfills his long-held ambition to create a major work of art about a single community. Strand’s photographs of Luzzara were published in Un Paese: Portrait of an Italian Village (1955).
In 1963, Strand was invited to Ghana at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah, its first president following the end of British rule. Fascinated by Ghana’s democracy during these years, Strand was excited to photograph a place undergoing rapid political change and modernization. He saw modernity in the efforts of a newly independent nation to chart its future unfolding simultaneously alongside traditional aspects of Ghanaian culture.
Portraiture was central to the project, as seen in Anna Attinga Frafra, Accra, Ghana (1964), in which a young schoolgirl balances books on her head. The project led to the publication of Ghana: An African Portrait (1976).
In Strand’s later years, he would increasingly turn his attention close to his home in Orgeval, outside Paris, often addressing the countless discoveries he could make within his own garden. There he produced a remarkable series of still lifes. These were at times reflective of earlier work, but also forward-looking in their exceptional compositions that depict the beauty of myriad textures, free-flowing movement, and evoke a quiet lyricism.
In addition to Strand’s still photography, the exhibition features three of his most significant films. Manhatta (1921), his first film and an important collaboration with painter and photographer Charles Sheeler, will be shown in full. This brief non-narrative “scenic” is considered the first American avant-garde film. It portrays the vibrant energy of New York City, juxtaposing the human drama on the street with abstracted bird’s-eye perspectives taken from high buildings and scenes of the ferry and harbor, all punctuated by poetry from Walt Whitman. Two of the films are seen in excerpts. Redes (1936), Strand’s second film, reflects the artist’s growing social awareness during his time in Mexico.
Released as The Wave in the U.S., the film is a fictional account of a fishing village struggling to overcome the exploitation of a corrupt boss. Native Land(1942) is Strand’s most ambitious film. Co-directed with Leo Hurwitz and narrated by Paul Robeson, it was created after his return to New York when Strand became a founder of Frontier Films and oversaw the production of leftist documentaries. Ahead of its time in its blending of fictional scenes and documentary footage, Native Land focuses on union-busting in the 1930s from Pennsylvania to the Deep South. When its release coincided with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it was criticized as out-of-step with the nation, leading Strand to return exclusively to still photography.
Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography is curated by Peter Barberie, the Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with the assistance of Amanda N. Bock, Project Assistant Curator of Photographs. Barberie said, “Whether he was printing in platinum, palladium, gelatin-silver, making films, or preparing books, Strand was ultimately more than a photographer. He was a great modern artist whose eloquent voice addressed the widest possible audience, and this voice continues to resonate today.”