Modern Artist With a Camera
BETWEEN 1915 and 1925, the American photographer Paul Strand was one of the most innovative artists in the world. Together with his mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, Strand played an important part in winning recognition for photography as one of the fine arts.
Although he was not the first to photograph people in city streets without their knowledge, the best of his candid portraits were among the most powerful images of their time. They had a spontaneity and vividness that he could hardly have attained if he had posed his subjects.
He photographed New York's buildings as well as its people. For Strand, the skyscrapers were not a mere background for sentimental anecdotes of city life. Like the people Strand photographed, the buildings looked dynamic and at times threatening, but never simply charming.
Strand supported himself for many years as a cinematographer. Perhaps because he had easy access to movie cameras, or because he thought movies and the cameras that made them were outstanding achievements of modern culture, he did a series of photographs of the inside of an Akeley motion-picture camera.
These were among the earliest examples of photographing machinery for an aesthetic purpose. Before Strand, artistic people thought of machines as ugly, and by definition anti-artistic. Making art seemed to be an act of opposition to technology and modernity; a photographer of truly artistic temperament would make pictures of people, places, and things that were as nearly as possible untouched by the 20th century. Gypsies, yes; sturdy farmers, yes; women in the home, yes; but not skyscrapers, or workers i n offices or factories.
Strand went beyond the traditional view of art existing to provide a soothing respite from the world's hustle and bustle. By the end of the 1920s, a host of designers, artists, and critics had accepted the idea that modern forms could be beautiful as well as functional, but Strand was a pioneer.
During this outstandingly creative period, Strand was happy to celebrate the modernity of America. At the same time he also embraced the innovations of Cubist painting. At a time when Cubism was new and not yet widely understood, he made still lifes that brought the discoveries of such painters as Braque and Picasso into photography.
His famous picture of a white picket fence may suggest Norman Rockwell Americana, but for Strand it was also an exercise in making a flat pattern out of a three-dimensional scene. A visitor to the house might hardly notice the fence, and a passerby would see grass and trees and a house as well as the fence. The camera, on the other hand, emphasizes the fence as if it were an element in an abstract painting, while the rest of the scene almost disappears.
Strand's sharp focus seems to show us every surface detail of the fence. Here photography does two things at once, isolating the abstract elements of a scene while at the same time being true to its nature as a tool for recording details.
Strand was a city boy, born in New York in 1890. He took up photography when he was still in high school. At first he was content to make conventional pictures of the kind then considered artistic. The convention was known as pictorial photography, and it dominated the work of serious amateurs from the 1890s through the 1940s.
Strand and his fellow pictorialists were eager to distinguish between photography that merely recorded the way things looked, for practical purposes, and the more praiseworthy kind of work they did, which emphasized soft focus, sentimental subject matter, and an attitude of detachment from commerce and machinery.
It embarrassed pictorial photographers to think that the camera was a machine, and much of their work suggests a desire to live as much as possible in an idealized version of the past. Strand quickly won recognition among his fellow amateurs, but after only a few years he began to feel impatient with their late-19th-century ideas about art.
Fortunately for him, he was not the only photographer to repudiate pictorialism at about the same time. An earlier defector, Alfred Stieglitz, operated an art gallery and published a magazine that presented avant-garde work in all the arts. Helped along by Stieglitz, who became his friend as well as his supporter and teacher, Strand became famous for his experimental work.
Before long he tired of that, too. During the 1920s and '30s, like many other outstanding modern artists, he retreated from the intense avant-gardism of his youth.
Strand began by repudiating his former optimism about cities and skyscrapers. To distance himself from modern urban dynamism, he photographed rural scenes in New Mexico and later in Mexico itself.
As the years passed, he devoted himself more and more to making handsome though not innovative pictures of human society in its most traditional forms.
After World War II, he did a series of well-received books, depicting apparently simple, noble people who were still living pre-modern lives in rural New England, Europe, and North Africa. When he was no longer well enough to travel, he photographed the flowers of his garden, in Orgeval, the French village where he died in 1976.
Much of the work he did in his later years is probably best understood as a denial of the 20th century in its distasteful aspects. Even in the boom years of the 1920s, he saw capitalism and industrialism as enemies to what was best in human nature. And although he himself was not reduced to poverty by the Depression, he was deeply affected by the suffering he saw around him. The rise of fascism in Europe seemed to threaten a second world war, which eventually came.
For a time he looked to communism and the Soviet Union as beacons of progress in an otherwise threatening world. Whatever his political ideals may have been, his pictures did not reflect the movement and change characteristic of a social revolution. Whether he was photographing people or things, Strand remained a still-life artist.
Strand was a modern man and photography was a modern occupation, but eventually he chose to photograph old-fashioned objects, like the picket fence, and people whose way of life seemed to be unchanged by the passage of time.
Paul Strand was not alone in desiring the world to stand still - at least in the realm of art - and he became both popular and respected. To the very end, his prints were always splendid objects.
But through his choice of subject matter and his fearful attitude toward life and movement, he changed himself into very much the kind of charming, sentimental photographer the younger Strand had repudiated.
* Paul Strand is the subject of a traveling exhibition organized by Sarah Greenough for the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, through Nov. 22.