Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the C20th
This July I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum‘s major retrospective of Paul Strand (1820-1976). This important collection shows how the American photographer became one of the most influential figures in documentary and fine art photography today.
This exhibition brings together photographic images, notebooks, a film and Strand’s early large format cameras that he used while moving through, and understanding the different genres of pictorialism, cubism, abstraction and early street photography.
‘Paul Strand dedicated his life to exploring the social and artistic power of the photograph. A champion of fine printing and of photography as a modern art. Motivated by socialist politics Strand looked to film making to encourage social change and as a researcher used materials and techniques to dig into the truth and meaning of the world.’ – Victoria & Albert Museum, March 19th-July 3rd.
After mastering pictorialism, Strand moved away from this painterly style as for him it lacked the social elements that were important to him. In 1919, he began using a large view camera and by printing to the 10×8 format, was able to increase detail in the images leading to him by 1927, to produce photographs of nature, and a more ‘meditative’ approach to his work.
The photograph Wall St. NY 1915, shows a graphic style, using contrast and the shadows of early morning. The image depicts an early ‘rat race’ of sorts as people go on their way to work, their shadows dragging behind them to emphasize the daily grind with the imposing building behind.
In his candid portraits of people in the streets, Strand used a decoy lens mounted onto his camera whilst keeping a real camera under his arm so his subjects would think he was pointing the camera at something else. It would be interesting to know if this method was used for his picture of the blind woman as an act of respect or whether this was a first step towards being more comfortable with his subjects which later was the case when he began asking their permission.
In 1932, Paul Strand travelled to Mexico and developed the idea of a ‘collective portrait’, a series of photographs of people, architecture and religious artefacts to depict an overall impression of pride and dignity of the culture and area. Here, he fixed a prism to his lens enabling him to view street scenes as they unfolded or people unaware as in his street portraiture before. Later, he was able to change his approach and began asking for the co-operation of the sitter.
Strand produced a portfolio of 20 Photogravures of Mexico, a process using intaglio or etching onto a copper plate that has been coated in gelatin. This printmaking process was first introduced by Fox Talbot, later perfected by Czech artist Karl Klic (1841-1926) and allowed the wider public to view photography through books and journals. The photogravures of Mexico are thought to be the most impressive examples made. -The History of the Photogravure [online] At http://www.photogravure.com/history/keyfigures_strand. (Accessed on July 1st 2016).
Paul Strand visited many other places including the Hebrides, Romania, Egypt, Morocco, France choosing places where identity was becoming impacted by globalisation. Some of his most famous images were taken in the Spring of 1953 when after meeting screenwriter Cesare Zavattini who wrote the classic ‘Bicycle Theives’ suggested he should photograph the village of his birth Luzzara. Here, Strand was able to photograph a whole village, a desire of his since watching Winesburg, Ohio,Sherwood Anderson.
Luzzara is a small agricultural village in northern Italy specialising in cheese and straw hats. Here Strand spent time observing the villagers and photographing them with the help of a translator. Strand would stand in the square until people got used to his prescence, only then could he photograph them unobserved. –Martin Barnes V&A
One of the most iconic images of this trip was of the Lusetti family outside their home. The different personalities are shown in this ‘deconstructed’ group portrait and shows their place within the family. The father had been killed previous to this being taken.
As the exhibition continues you see a confidence in Strand unfold that begins with fake lenses and prisms to detract the sitter from his picture taking to communicating with the subject and then begin direct contact that becomes more intense as his travels continue.
This remarkable exhibition shows how a photographer working so long ago was a street photographer, most people equate this genre to be quite modern day, but also depicted scenes of the ‘rat race’ workers in Wall St, and was concerned about globalisation.
Refs: M.Barnes senior Curator, Victoria & Albert Museum.(Accessed July 1st 2016) [online] .vam.ac.uk/articles/paul-strand-un-paese
photogravure.com/history/keyfigures_strand . (Accessed on July 1st 2016).[online]
Philidelphia Museum of Art http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/805.html [Accessed July 2nd 2016] [online].