Paul Strand's Art

Before I spoil this article with to many words have a look at this ten minute movie. I would watch it all If I were you but if you fast forward it and find bits that you like that is good too.

Crossposted on my blog: Paul Strand Modernism to McCarthyism | Minimalist Photography 101

This is a movie by the photographer/filmaker Paul Strand and  Charles Sheeler. It was inspired by Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. This may seem pretty pedestrian when viewed through jaundiced 21st century eyes that get 100 weird camera angles and perspectives hurled at them before the opening credits of the latest acronymed  dead body doc/cop show. It was anything but pedestrian in  1921 when it was made. It is widely regarded as the first American  avante Guarde / experimental film. Personally I think that it  romanticizes its subject too much to be regarded quite so cerebrally but I am pretty sure that I am in a minority on that score. Again context is important and  in its time it was cutting edge, no doubt about that.

The Introduction to the Wikipedia piece about the film

Manhatta (1921) is a short documentary film which revels in the haze rising from city smokestacks. With the city as subject, it consists of 65 shots sequenced in a loose non-narrative structure, beginning with a ferry approaching Manhattan and ending with a sunset view from a skyscraper. The primary objective of the film is to explore the relationship between photography and film; camera movement is kept to a minimum, as is incidental motion within each shot. Each frame provides a view of the city that has been carefully arranged into abstract compositions.

It was an attempt to show the filmmakers' love for the city of New York. Manhatta was a collaboration between painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand. The interspersed title cards include excerpts from Walt Whitman.

Now on to some photography:

Paul Strand, Wire Wheel, 1917

This was shot in 1917 and is titled Wire Wheel. Strand felt no obligation to get the whole object in frame. To him it was a collection of lines and tones, spaces and shapes. What the object was or what function it served are immaterial. Strand was the first photographer to really get this.

A bit of advice to anyone interested in photography - if you can clear this mental hurdle you will be  a good photographer no ifs and buts. I suspect that many will disagree with that statement and as Craig Ferguson would probably say,   ' I am looking forward to receiving your emails.'

Paul Strand: Wall Street, New York City, 1915

Wall Street - 1915

Now this is one of my favorites, everything about it is right and it doesn't contain anything not essential to the composition. Strand is also one of the few photographers that regards shadows with the same weight as other elements. To him they are not something to be worked around but rather something to be worked with. Note the timing of this shot - the shadows are exactly parallel to the sidewalk, believe me this is not accidental. To me this image has a perfect balance or tension between the horizontal and vertical elements - without the shadows this would not have been the case. The exact timing of the shot would seem to indicate that Strand was at least mindful of this. There are no accidents in Strand's work. The other aspect of this picture which is inescapable is scale - the relatively small figures against the massive columns heightens the drama.

Paul Strand, Porch Shadows, 1916

Porch Shadows - 1916

Again, stripping away any significance that the object may have and reducing everything to lines and tone. Whereas the Wall Street photograph was going towards the abstract this one takes another leap in that direction. The people gave the former image a sense of scale where in the latter one it is really difficult to sense the scale and I suspect that this is deliberate. Removing  scale as a device takes away an important pictorial crutch. This is really important within the larger context of photography around the time of the First World War. Photographers led by Strand and Stieglitz (who I wrote about here) represented the move away from the pictorial and illustrative and into the more abstracted Modernism movement.

The Stieglitz / Strand Connection

Strand was a hobbyist and a student of highly regarded documentary producer Lewis Hine when he first visited Stieglitz and Steichen's 291 Gallery. The work he saw by the leading Modernist painters and photographers convinced him that this was where his future lay. Stieglitz went on to promote Strand's work both in the gallery and his photography publication Camera Work, the major photography magazine of its time. In later years Stieglitz and Steichen became more distant due to the former not being happy with the latter's undertaking of commercial commissions for and fashion shoots for the likes of Vogue.  For context it is important to know that the politics from which the Modernists came was unabashedly left wing in the most uncompromising and best European tradition.  Generally speaking the New York Modernists were firmly rooted in the communism and socialism of the movements original home, Berlin.

The Photo League

The Photo League was a cooperative of amateur and professional photographers in New York who banded together around a range of common social and creative causes. The League was active from 1936 to 1951 and included among its members some of the most famous American photographers of the mid-20th century.

The Photo League Wikipedia

The group had its origins a communist group in Berlin where it was called the Worker's Camera League. The New York version went by the name the Film and Photo League. The stated goals of the Film and Photo Leagure were to:

struggle against and expose reactionary film; to produce documentary films reflecting the lives and struggles of the American workers; and to spread and popularize the great artistic and revolutionary Soviet productions.

Tucker, Anne (September 1979). The Photo League: Photography as a Social Force. "Modern Photography". pp. 90.
The Photo League Wikipedia

The film and photography sides eventually went their seperate ways due to differences of which I am hazy about, social and production is often quoted but I'm not entirely sure of what that means. The split, however, was very amicable by all accounts and the two groups often collaborated and publicized each others work. This split occurred in the mid thirties. You have probably guessed that this is when the photography side became just the Photo League. Strand was active in both fields and appeared to play an active role across the board. The League was at it's height in the early 40s with it's membership comprising the biggest names in American photography at the time. The social and political mission was in full flow at this time  and the League was caretaker of the Lewis Hine Memorial Collection, donated by Hines son in recognition of their role in fostering social activism through photography as his father had done. The father was of course, Strands original tutor.

Unfortunately a lack of political cynicism led directly to the end of the group. The vast bulk of the membership where good solid progressives by today's standards but very few had taken the time to find out about the groups Berlin communist origins. Enter McCarthyism and the FBI and  the subversive and anti-American label was pinned to the group in very short order.

An informant always helps and in this case the name was Angela Calomiris probably better known as Angela Cole. She happened to be a photographer and joined the Photo League prior to being recruited by the FBI and then by the Communist Party USA. She rose to a position of relative power within the CPUSA with access to a lot of records. When asked why she agreed to work with the FBI she said that she "kind of wanted to be a hero'.


Strand was never officially a member of the Communist party he had very close ties to people who were and Frontier films was branded as 'subversive and un-American. He also had his books published in Leipzed, East Germany which was enough to have them prohibited in the US. So America at the end of the war was not a good place to be. He spent the last 27 years of his life in self imposed exile. He was extremely productive during this period.

Concluding thoughts

There is a lot to Paul Strand as a photographer, filmaker and as a socially aware human being who did want to make a difference. I have barely skimmed the surface here but the links below will certainly help to flesh out his life story.

On a personal level he is my favorite photographer. Up until about a year ago I'd never really looked into the history of photography regarding it purely as a minor strand (no pun intended) of the version of visual art history that puts the draftsmen and the painters on the pinnacle of importance and everyone else as sort of incidental at best and second rate at worst. I was wrong to do this.

I used to be and still am to a small extent a painter but I've dabbled with photography off and on over many years. It is only in the last decade though that I've really started to take it seriously and now it is my preferred medium by far. So, the short version of this is that I've been aware of Strand's work and thinking for a lot less time than I've been pointing cameras at stuff. The first photograph of his that I saw was of some dishes that reminded me of a gentle cubist painting and straight away I knew that I wasn't alone. It was that profound. There was someone else who saw the world through the viewfinder as an arrangement of lines and tones first and foremost. Someone else who would stare at the pattern of a shadow on a wall or an arrangement of dishes and think composition.

Some useful links:

Wiki (anything that I haven't sourced probably comes from one of these Wiki links)

Paul Strand - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Photo League - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Angela Calomiris - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

291 (Art Gallery) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This one is a real treat: Image Magazine (1974). First twelve pages cover Paul Strand in Amazing depth and images then their is a piece on Walker Evans who I am gaining a much deeper appreciation of due to a conversation that resulted from my Stieglitz post.

Here are some more electronic copies of IMAGE magazine that came up on a search for  Paul Strand Word of warning- once you discover these archives your life will be put on hold. Free copies of the magazine from it's inception in 1952 until 1997.

Just one more: Paul Strand: Modernist Outlook/Significant Vision by Naomi Rosenblum from the magazine. I'm going to stop now as I'm entering full on shiny object mode.

Originally posted to stevej on Sat Feb 26, 2011 at 02:47 PM PST.

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