The cool photographic gaze of Paul Strand
The New York-born pioneer helped forge photography’s path from documentary to art, and roamed the planet in his quest to understand places and cultures. Illustrated with works previously sold and upcoming at Christie’s
The path from documentary to art — with formal innovations
‘Paul Strand is one of the seminal photographers you study as an undergraduate and never forget,’ says Darius Himes, International Head of Photographs for Christie’s.
Strand is credited with forging a path for photography from documentarian strictures to artful expression. Even for those disinclined to embrace art history, Strand’s formal innovations — employing the cool photographic gaze to showcase the alluring curves of early industrial design, enhance the drama of shadows falling from buildings or light bouncing off trees, and capture the odd dignity of street life — rarely fail to appeal.
Strand was influenced by Pictoralism — and then rejected it
Strand’s penchant for beauty might have been spurred by his early focus on the then prevailing movement of Pictorialism, which took its cues from 19th-century painting, and sought to position photography less as a recording tool and more as a vehicle for artistic expression. Along with Alfred Stieglitz, however, Strand came to reject Pictorialist notions of beauty, and sought instead a more unaffected, modernist observation of the world.
‘His formal innovations were used to connect viewers with social issues’ — Chris Boot
‘The pictures don’t seem so radical to us today because we traffic in the language they created,’ says Chris Boot, director of the Aperture Foundation, which has managed the artist’s estate as the Paul Strand Archive since 1983. ‘He used formal characteristics to create fresh ideas about the possibilities of vision and ways of seeing.’
From Cubism to Alfred Stieglitz
‘In the 1910s, Strand was interested in Cubism as a new artistic language, in which he thought photography could participate,’ says Peter Barberie, Brodsky Curator of Photographs of the Alfred Stieglitz Center at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. ‘But when he started using an 8 x 10 view camera around 1919, he became interested in the camera’s ability to see better than the human eye.
‘His experimentation and formal abstraction moved into something really quite opposite because his pictures with the view camera are patently not abstract as they show the stark realities of, say, a toadstool or a flower.’
Throughout the 1920s, Strand was heartily embraced by Stieglitz’s circle, including Georgia O’Keeffe and the artists he showed at 291 gallery in Manhattan, some of whom Strand corresponded and collaborated with.
Redes / The Wave — Paul Strand as film-maker
Despite the happy accident of family affluence, Strand worked as a commercial photographer as well as a movie cameraman, continuing to hone his understanding of what transparent imagery could do. It is possibly this work as a film-maker that endowed him with the inherent understanding of the narrative of the moving image, which contemporary practitioners naturally bring to still photography.
In the early 1930s, Strand set off for Mexico to work on his feature-length film, Redes / The Wave (1936). During this project, says Boot, he ‘became steadily more concerned with social and political themes of the working class. His formal innovations were used to connect viewers with social issues.’
Leftist politics, Mexico and New England
With his growing leftist leanings, Strand developed ever deeper projects to examine the evolution of a place and its culture. ‘He was a very slow, methodical artist — with the exception of his street work in New York in the teens,’ says Barberie. ‘He would become interested in a place for a variety of reasons, but most often because of remoteness and politics.’
He continued his film work with the founding of the nonprofit Frontier Films, which he led from 1937 to 1942, and continued to innovate his methods for print photography, creating series of images of Mexico and then, through the 1940s, of New England. Whereas his images of Mexico were largely of anonymous subjects, Strand engaged with his New England subjects, seeing them as collaborators.
Travels in Europe: France, Italy and the Scottish Hebrides
He spent much of the 1950s in Europe with his third wife, Hazel, to whom he remained married until his death, creating substantial bodies of work in France, Italy, and the Scottish Hebrides.
‘Once he determined a location, he would plan a trip, often for several weeks,’ says Barberie. ‘He would get to know a writer familiar with the place, and it would take years to make these books. Before Aperture existed, he didn’t really have a partner for these book projects.’
Partnership with the Aperture Foundation: Egypt, Romania, Africa
Although the Aperture Foundation was founded in 1951 with the mission to advance photography as a medium — clearly an ideal close to Strand’s heart — the photographer did not join forces with the foundation’s director, Michael Hoffman, until 1967 when it collaborated with Strand on the second edition of his Mexican Portfolio.
The collaboration continued until Strand’s death in 1976, during which time the foundation acted as the artist’s dealer, supporting his existing body of work and his ensuing series made in Egypt, Romania, and Africa. ‘The sale of prints over the years has been central to our work, and in turn our support of other photographers who have emerged as great artists,’ explains Boot.
Collecting later works
‘His work from the 1940s on hasn’t gotten the attention that I think it should,’ says Barberie. Due to his formal advances of the early 20th century, he was often dismissed as archaic aesthetically while his continued technical advances were overlooked.
Of Aperture’s publication of The Mexican Portfolio, the curator says the assembled images are, ‘essential platinum prints made for the pleasure of the print process as much as for the dissemination of the work.’ In an age of phone photography, the perfected craft inherent in Strand’s work is more easily appreciated.
Still lifes, portraits, and the pursuit of truth
Artistry is only a single layer of Strand’s multivalent project, which harbours all the depth and complexity of the conceptual investigations of his contemporary counterparts. He had no illusions about the idea of truth in photography, yet ultimately believed in the truth of the individual photograph.
‘When he gave you a portrait of a person, he believed he was giving you the essence of that person, or that a still life is giving essential information about a place or culture,’ says Barberie. ‘At the same time, he had no qualms about arranging a composition to create a pleasing tableau. He understood very clearly that a work of art is a representation, even a fiction, created by the artist.’
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But he also believed that notion could be tempered by an idealistic intention to communicate objective reality, which would deliver the truth of the subject. As such, he also believed photography and its presentation of objects of the past commingled with those of the present could communicate time better than any other art form.
‘Sometimes I liken him to Mount Rushmore, which is this familiar icon we think we know,’ says Barberie. ‘But we have to look beyond the best-known images to allow his individuality and his accomplishments to emerge.’