Paul Strand


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Photographer and filmmaker. His compelling fusion of real and ideal pioneered a modern aesthetic of straight photography. He combined the camera's objective description with formal principles derived from cubism and other forms of modern art. Born in New York, Strand studied photography at the Ethical Culture School with Lewis Hine, who introduced him to Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery. Strand's earliest work reflected current pictorialism, but about 1914 he began to produce original work that forecast both the formal and humanitarian concerns of his mature career. In a series of unsentimental but moving urban scenes, he combined visual patterns perceived in New York's architecture with the movement of passersby, suggesting not only the rhythms and energies of modern life but also its psychology. Stieglitz showed the photographs at 291 early in 1916 and published them in Camera Work. Additional Strand works constituted all the illustrations in the following year's final issue of the magazine. While experimenting with pure form during the summer of 1916, in radically original images Strand subordinated recognizable still life objects to compositional structure. “Abstraction, Porch Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut” (1916) makes a bold and satisfying design from an arc of round table and shadows of a railing. Back in New York that fall, Strand turned to street portraits of anonymous subjects, often surreptitiously captured with a hand-held camera fitted with a right-angle lens. Dignified by their monumental presence in these images, the figures also highlight distinctively contemporary types. The following year, as one of the first artists to find formal beauty in machinery, the premier emblem of modernity, Strand helped to open an area of aesthetic investigation that interested precisionists and others throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, as changing ideals entered photographic expression in the mid-1910s, Strand's example proved prophetic. Within a few years, nearly all serious photographers had abandoned pictorialism's romantic aspirations, its characteristic soft focus, and its painterly printing techniques. Following his discharge in 1919 from a year's service in the Army Medical Corps, Strand visited Nova Scotia, where he first tried landscape photography. He also experimented there with near abstractions from natural forms, such as rocks, prefiguring not only an important aspect of his own later work but also an interest of many later photographers. Strand collaborated in 1920 with Charles Sheeler on the brief silent film Manhatta, a tribute to New York as a modern city, with texts by Walt Whitman. Continuing his interest in filmmaking until the mid-1940s, for a decade after 1922 he worked as a freelance cinematographer. He then worked as a documentary filmmaker in Mexico until 1935 and in the United States through World War II. Achieved in collaboration with Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, among others, the most notable of his films remains The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), written and directed by Pare Lorentz.

Largely because he found the postwar American political atmosphere uncongenial to his left-wing convictions, Strand moved to France in 1950. During later years, he traveled widely, extending the ethnographic spirit of his last major project in the United States, a detailed investigation of New England. Continuing for the most part to employ view cameras and create finely crafted prints, he focused on rural and village life of traditional societies throughout Europe and North Africa. His photographs interpret landscapes and their inhabitants with crystalline intensity but also with appreciation for his subjects' moral dignity. Strand published a number of books that reflect his travels and his vision of community. Time in New England (1950), with text by Nancy Newhall, was followed by La France de profil (1954), with text by Claude Roy; Un paese (1955), on Italy with text by Cesare Zavattini; Tir a' Mhurain (1962), on the Outer Hebrides with text by Basil Davidson; and others. He died near Paris, at his Orgeval home where he often photographed the garden after moving there in the mid-1950s. His first wife, painter Rebecca Salsbury Strand (1891–1968), later Rebecca James, posed for an emotionally intimate 1920s portrait series. They married in 1922 and separated eleven years later.


Subjects: Art.

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