Paul Strand 1890–1976: milestone in photography

Paul Strand was born of Bohemian parents in New York City in 1890. He went to the Ethical Culture School (of much higher intellectual standing as he recalled than the average public school of the time), where Lewis Hine, who later became an important social realist photographer, was assistant professor of biology. When Hine announced that he was starting a photography class the young Strand enrolled with four or five others. One day Hine took the class to an international exhibition of photographs at ‘291’, Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession gallery on Fifth Avenue, and on this decisive day – to use Strand’s own words – his ‘relationship with photography’ began. 

Stieglitz had opened the Photo-Secession Gallery, (later known simply as ‘291’) in 1902, really in revolt against the camera-club complacency of the time; he was passionately determined to secure for photography a recognised place among the arts. A great photographer, he was dedicated to raising standards and opening up an intelligent discussion on photography and art, as a forum for which he launched the influential quarterly magazine, Camera Work, in January 1903. Edward Steichen, another member of the group, (and Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art from 1947 to 1962), was largely responsible for bringing avant-garde work by such artists as Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, Cézanne, Picabia, Rodin and others, to show at 291. Strand’s exposure as a schoolboy to 291 was a crucial point in his development and he often returned to see the art from Europe which so offended critics and public alike, all the time working on to improve his mastery of technique and thinking over the role and potential of photography. 

In fact, he was eventually the only truly radical photographer to emerge from the Photo-Secession milieu, although he was not actually a member of the movement, but followed later. Oddly enough, in looking back over the pages of Camera Work, it is obvious that what Walker Evans called ‘Stieglitz’s screaming aestheticism’ did not really achieve his high aims for photography within the circle of the Photo-Secession: the importance of 291 lay more in bringing modern European art to America, in showing Negro sculpture, and subsequently in the influence these works had on Paul Strand. 

From time to time in his late teens and early twenties. Strand showed his work to Stieglitz, whose judgement and criticism he found to be of incalculable value. He also showed prints to Clarence White and Gertrude Käsebier, members of the group, but later recalled: ‘They were very sweet to me as a young fellow, but not very helpful. They said what I had was not bad and so on, but it was not very constructive criticism. But from Stieglitz I got very great criticism, which I took extremely seriously. I learned an enormous amount from what he had to say’. 


The young Strand’s imagination was fired by Matisse, Picasso and Braque’s analyses of the elements of pictures and he began to experiment with abstraction and reduced form. He produced such images as Abstraction porch shadows, Connecticut, 1915 (fig. 1) and Jug and fruit, Connecticut, 1915 (fig. 2) and others, which, while purely photographic, did more than all the pictorial aesthetic work of the Photo-Secession to exploit photography’s unique properties and so to realise an identity for photography as art. 

During the same period (in his twenties) he made wonderful images in the streets of New York, combining the geometric forms of static backgrounds with the ever-changing movement of horses, vehicles, people and light. Snow, backyards, New York City, 1914 (fig. 3) was directly inspired by Steiglitz’s early New York photographs, but to the street scenes he brought his own original solutions. He also made a series of candid street portraits, using a right-angled viewfinder (the ethical propriety of which may be questioned today) to catch the subjects unawares. These, including Blind woman (her numbered licence to beg pinned squarely on her bosom) and the Man in a derby (both 1916) remain to this day among the most brutal and astonishing portraits ever made with a camera. 


In 1917 Stieglitz recognised his major talent and gave him a one-man show, devoting the last two historic issues of Camera Work, numbers 49 and 50, entirely to Paul Strand’s images. He wrote in the foreword: 

For ten years Strand quietly had been studying, constantly experimenting, keeping in close touch with all that is related to life in its fullest aspect; intimately related to the spirit of ‘291’. His work is rooted in the best traditions of photography. His vision is potential. His work is pure. It is direct. It does not rely upon tricks of process. In whatever he does there is applied intelligence. In the history of photography there are but few photographers who, from the point of view of expression have really done work of any importance. And by importance we mean work that has some relatively lasting quality, that element which gives all art its real significance. 


The eleven photogravures in this number represent the real Strand. The man who actually has done something from within. The photographer who has added something to what has gone before. The work is brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any ‘ism’, devoid of any attempt to mystify an ignorant public, including the photographers themselves. These photographs are the direct expression of today. 


Camera Work, 1917 

Clearly, this work opened a new epoch in the history of photography and Strand could be identified as a milestone, in greatness of the calibre of David Octavius Hill (1802–70), Eugène Atget (1856–1927) – of whose work the world was not even aware until the mid-twenties – and Stieglitz   himself (1864–1946); a milestone to lead the way for important successors such as Edward Weston, Walker Evans and August Sander, and to lift photography well and truly into the 20th century. 

His fervour for pure photography was stated again and again in talks, articles and interviews throughout his life, and he never ceased to emphasise its uniqueness as a medium and its independence from painting. He abhorred work which tried to imitate other art forms, as shown by the following extract from Seven Arts, 1917. 

Photography, which is the first and only important contribution thus far, of science to the arts, finds its raison d’être, like all media, in a complete uniqueness of means. This is an absolute unqualified objectivity. Unlike the other arts which are really anti-photographic, this objectivity is of the very essence of photography, its contribution and at the same time its limitation. And just as the majority of workers in other media have completely misunderstood the inherent qualities of their respective means, so photographers, with the possible exception of two or three, have had no conception of the photographic means. The full potential power of every medium is dependent upon the purity of its use, and all attempts at mixture end in such dead things as the color-etching, the photographic painting and in photography, the gum-print, oil-print, etc., in which the introduction of handwork and manipulation is merely the expression of an impotent desire to paint …


The photographer’s problem therefore, is to see clearly the limitation and at the same time the potential qualities of his medium for it is precisely here that honesty no less than intensity of vision, is the prerequisite of a living expression. This means a real respect for the thing in front of him expressed in terms of chiaroscuro through a range of almost infinite tonal values which lie beyond the skill of human hand. The fullest realisation of this is accomplished, without tricks of process or manipulation, through the use of straight photographic methods … Photography is only a new road from a different direction, but moving toward the common goal, which is Life. 

After the exhibition at 291 Strand began to explore the propensities of machines, influenced perhaps, by the fact that he had been earning a living as a free-lance movie cameraman, and was now training as an X-ray technician. For the first time in history he photographed, in an aesthetic sense, a close-up of a car wheel, the finely milled moving parts of a lathe, the precisely wrought interior of the magazine of an Akeley motion picture camera showing the spring roller which glides and controls the jerky movement of the film through the aperture gate, expressing the beauty and dignity of craftsmanship. A quality now illumined his images which has informed them ever since; a luminosity from within, and a sheen upon the forms of objects giving the feel of shape and texture. This defining of sculptural form, this caressing sheen and interior lambency combined, have ever since been the outstanding mark of Strand’s work, conveying his passionate humanist commitment to subject – whether it be a machine, a human being, wind-blown grasses, a window or the wide sky, all of which were subjects for his camera through the twenties. 

Overall, he had about twenty years’ experience in documentary films, the first of which, Manahatta, was a six-minute semi-abstract experiment made in the city of New York with painter and photographer, Charles Sheeler, and is now a classic of the avant-garde. In 1931 he was invited by the Ministry for Education in Mexico to set up a film programme and during the next two years he made the photographs subsequently issued as The Mexican Portfolio (1940). On returning to the United States he became president of Frontier Films and worked on documentaries similar in concern to the still photographs of the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker. He did not return to stills full-time until 1944. 

The Mexican Portfolio consists of twenty exquisite gravures, the concentrated harvest of his observations of the very temperament and character of Mexico. Characteristics, to Strand, were incidental; character was his more enduring preoccupation. In the inscrutable faces of the peasants we are aware of centuries of labour and physical embattlement with the elements, of tenacity and resignation. To give weight to his interpretation he photographed the religious symbols of the people, the bultos – strange images of Christ and the Virgin – of the particular Spanish-oriented Roman Catholicism of the country, of which Elizabeth McCausland wrote in U.S. Camera (1940): 

… the crucified Christ is the figure of every peasant broken in his daily war for bread. It is possible to look at these photographs as at still lifes executed with consummate skill, or to study them as documents of the culture which created them. 

At a comparatively early stage Strand abandoned his radically experimental work and came to a fundamental humanist vision to which he remained true for the rest of his life. He felt no need to depict monuments, architectural splendours or fashionable places but would choose a small village, island or province, patiently absorbing its totality and studying its minutest details in search of subjects, before which he would set himself full square (never up nor down, never obliquely placed), and wait as if taken root – but equally able to work fast, if need be, to capture a white horse against gathering storm clouds (fig. 4) – until satisfied with what was revealed. In successive journeys he explored with concentrated fidelity, and sought to express, the inner and outward truth of places. A French peasant has a hundred generations behind him, his landscape is intimate, his house very old, its window shows a little detail inside of the lives of families – with, perhaps, a pot plant or a lace curtain, and a slanting reflection upon the glass, and is weathered outside, of stone or rain-worn wood, hammered by time and the moment’s light into its present shape; Strand will perceive and reveal all this and far more than meets a casual eye. How solidly hangs the work-horse harness on a stone wall, proud and honest its mark of labour, the great straps curved at the ends; and how graceful the upturned shafts of a cart, resting in a cobbled yard against espaliered trees on a white wall! 

Over six decades he worked in New England, New York, New Mexico, Mexico, France, Italy, the Hebrides, Ghana and Morocco, leaving a legacy of remarkable pictures of stillness and eternity, of survival and history. By the time he was 30 years old, his work was no longer experimental in that he had by then widened the frontiers of photography and arrived at a creative maturity of profound capacity. For the rest of his life he was on a steady course of the utmost surety whereby everything in his mastery of the medium was subsumed to an expression of the subject. Subject, as Hilton Kramer wrote in The Art of the Avant-garde, was now the image itself

He died in 1976, his work published in many books and represented in many museum collections. His own words best serve to conclude. 

The existence of a medium, after all, is its absolute justification if, as so many seem to think, it needs one; and all comparison of potentialities is useless and irrelevant. Whether a watercolour is inferior to an oil, or whether a drawing, an etching, or a photograph is not as important as either is inconsequent. To have to despise something in order to respect something is a sign of impotence. Let us rather accept joyously and with gratitude everything through which the spirit of man seeks to an ever fuller and more intense self-realisation. 


Seven Arts, 1917 

The National Gallery of Victoria recently acquired the Strand portfolio On My Doorstep for the Photography Collection. The portfolio was issued in an edition of fifty before Strand’s death in 1976 and the set of eleven prints ranges over sixty years of his work. The Mexican Portfolio is also in the Photography Collection. 

Jennie Boddington, Assistant Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1977).