Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Paul Strand (1890 – 1976) is credited with being one of the century’s greatest photographers. This exhibition brings together 200 prints, shows three of the films he made, as well as some of the actual cameras he used, and several cases full of his published photobooks. It is probably as panoramic an overview of his career as you could achieve.

Strand started out in New York as a protégé of the great photographic pioneer Alfred Stieglitz and the first room shows him adopting Stieglitz’s ‘Pictorialism’, ie a consciously ‘artistic’ approach and ‘painterly’ use of composition. These include deliciously atmospheric portraits of old New York types from 1916 or so…

Blind Woman, New York by Paul Strand (1916) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Blind Woman, New York by Paul Strand (1916) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

… along with self-consciously arty still lifes and abstracts, turning modern life into geometry, fascinated by hard lines, diagonals, the sort of abstract shapes being explored in European painting.

Wall Street, New York by Paul Strand (1915) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Wall Street, New York by Paul Strand (1915) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The show has a room set aside to watch his 1921 black and white silent movie, Manhatta, which has inter-titles from Walt Whitman’s poetry. A vivid if, after a while, slightly boring impression of a day in the life of old New York.

In the 1920s he bought a large-format camera which enabled him to create a whole new style of highly detailed nature studies. These very detailed close-up shots of natural forms – flowers, fungi, rocks, sand – were to remain a theme of his work to the end of his life. Highlights of this early phase include:

Another room is devoted to portraits of friends and artists in his circle. This started with his wife, Rebecca Salsbury – I was struck by her complete lack of make-up and stern demeanour. Compare and contrast with the super-glamorous magazine photos of the era or the work of Man Ray.

Rebecca by Paul Strand (1921) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Rebecca by Paul Strand (1921) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The room has studies of his mentor Stieglitz as well as several of the very antiquated cameras that Strand actually used, standing on their heavy wooden tripods. In fact, his relationship with both Stieglitz and Rebecca eventually broke down, he left New York, and never returned to portraits of friends and family, for the rest of his career photographing strangers abroad.

The rest of the exhibition is divided into rooms each of which focus on one of the many foreign destinations he travelled to. He had an enviable range and soon settled into a pattern of travelling to a foreign country and generating a photobook from it, often with text commissioned from a contemporary writer.

The American South Like many writers and artists he was attracted to New Mexico and especially the desert settlement of Taos. Dark shadows cut like knives across white pablo buildings in the desert sun.

Canada He photographed fishing communities on the Newfoundland Coast.

Mexico In 1932 Strand moved to Mexico where he was commissioned by the government to help rebuild Mexican culture after the disruption of the revolution, by photographing Mexican life and people. It was during this period that he fully embraced Socialist politics, as so many other artists in the decade when the threat of Fascism darkened the skies.

Rock, Loch Eynort, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Rock, Loch Eynort, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Personally I didn’t like any of his Mexican photos. I always find it deeply patronising and hypocritical of white, wealthy, well-educated North American writers and artists to hop over the border and enjoy the poverty, violence, bleeding Jesus Catholicism and colourful fiestas of Mexican culture and then, when they’ve had enough, go back to their Californian swimming pools.

There are no end of sweet, big-eyed Mexican children or ‘authentic’ Mexican peasant women and tough unemployed loungers on the street, precisely the kind of subjects which make anyone who can point a camera feel like they’re getting in touch with ‘reality’ or ‘the human spirit’ or a ‘more authentic way of life’ etc.

There’s another dark room where visitors can watch a clip from The Wave, a Mexican-made movie he helped produce about a strike of poor fishermen, made in 1936, the year the Spanish Civil War broke out. What a terrifying period to live through, as shadows deepened all round the world.

The exhibition then jumps to a series of images shot in New England late in the Second World War, with no word of what Strand got up to during the war, and why he returned from Mexico to the States.

New England Tidy white interiors and church doors. This sequence included my favourite image from the show. I can’t find a larger image and this size doesn’t do justice to the tremendous granularity of this image of a farm door, and the simple but classical framing.

Vermont In 1943 he was in Vermont, taking the usual range of images of people, churches and classical buildings, and plants and flowers.

  • Jack-in-the-pulpit, Vermont

France In 1950 he went to see France which was still struggling to rebuild itself after the war. Photos of cafes, a drug store, the countryside, moustachioed peasants, and one of the two most striking, classic portraits from his entire oeuvre.

Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France by Paul Strand (1951) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France by Paul Strand (1951) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The Hebrides 1954 found Strand visiting the Hebrides, specifically the island of South Uist. His attention had been caught by a BBC documentary which featured the beautiful singing of a sea shanty in Gaelic by Mrs Archie MacDonald who he tracked down and photographed. This set of photos is also featured in the exhibition of Britain as Revealed by International Photographers at the Barbican. Though the images here were good, I remember the selection at the Barbican as being distinctively better, more powerful and unique feeling.

Angus Peter MacIntyre, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Angus Peter MacIntyre, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

There were further sets of images from trips to Italy, Egypt and Morocco (1959), communist Romania (1960) and post-independence Ghana (1963), but a seed of doubt had been planted by the Hebrides images which was confirmed by the big display case showing 10 or a dozen of the large-format hardback photobooks which resulted from each of these trips.

The photobooks were open and in almost every instance, the pair of photos on the facing pages of each photobook was better than the prints hanging on the walls. For example the two shots in the book on Ghana were really striking, a portrait of a young black man and of some kind of oil refinery, both clear and bold, both better than the so-so images on the walls.

Why? The ones on the walls are good, but the ones in the books are consistently really good. Why?

Orgeval, France Strand finally left an America which was becoming increasingly paranoid in the Cold War and falling prey to the McCarthyite persecution of leftists and intellectuals. He settled in France, in a village called Orgeval, north-west of Paris, where he spent the last 27 years of his life. Here his third wife, fellow photographer Hazel Kingsbury Strand, created a wonderful garden and the final room is devoted to a selection of beautiful photos he took of its plants and flowers.

Summary

The exhibition presents a good case for Strand’s importance, for his longevity and the consistency of his achievement. But I was surprised that there are a lot of so-so images in the show, and not really that many that stand out, that leap out. Many have a very flat affect; there’s surprisingly little use of light and shade. Strand won’t be replacing Cartier-Bresson or Man Ray or Beaton in my list of top photographers.

And I am deeply puzzled why so many of his best photos aren’t on display, but remain concealed in rare and hard-to-get photobooks. You could see more in the enormous and impressive exhibition catalogue, but why aren’t they hung on the walls of this big exhibition for us to see?

The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis) by Paul Strand (1953) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis) by Paul Strand (1953) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Related links

Reviews of other V&A shows

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