Monday, 04 April 2016 20:05

A focus on political commitment: the photography of Paul Strand

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Rebecca, New York, 1921
Rebecca, New York, 1921
© Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

John Green reviews a new exhibition about the great American photographer Paul Strand, pointing to the 'mute, empathetic, visual rapport' that Strand achieves in his images.

The socialist photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976) has long been neglected, although during his lifetime he was very influential on many budding photographers and other artists. The painter Edward Hopper was just one of many artists whose approach to urban scenes was heavily influenced by Strand.

Born in New York, he attended classes in photography, and the photographic club, run by Lewis Hine at the Ethical Culture School. The modernist movement in the visual arts was just beginnning, and a visit to Alfred Stieglitz's gallery inspired Strand to explore the expressive possibilities of the medium, which previously he had only considered as a hobby.

Along with fellow modernist photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, he helped establish photography as an art form. Some of his early work, like Wall Street, Abstraction, Porch Shadows and White Fence show his experiments with formal abstractions.

 

Reduced White Fence Port Kent New York 1916 by Paul Strand Paul Strand Archive Aperture Foundation

White Fence, Port Kent, New York © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

 

Later on, he adopted a more straightforward realistic approach, becoming more interested in using the camera as a tool for social reform, for example in Blind Woman, a candid and anonymous street portrait made secretly using a camera with a decoy lens.

 

3 Blind Woman New York 1916 by Paul Strand Paul Strand Archive Aperture Foundation

 Blind Woman, New York © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

 

He was one of the founders of the Photo League, an association of photographers that advocated using their art to promote social and political causes.

During the 1920s he concentrated on photographing mainly urban sites, continuing with the machine forms begun earlier, and also turned his attention to nature, using large plate cameras and making contact prints on platinum paper. In these works, which were very influential in the evolution of the ‘New Objectivity’, form and feeling are dialectically related.

In addition, Strand's writings, beginning in 1917 with Photography and the New God, set forth the necessity for the photographer to evolve aesthetic principles based on the objective nature of reality. His early semi-abstract works were influenced by Cubism. Many are platinum prints in small format, which give dense contrasting images, but he went on to use a large format camera with excellent quality lenses to increase the clarity and detail of his images.

After service in the Army Medical Corps, where he was introduced to X-ray and other medical camera procedures, Strand collaborated with Charles Sheeler on Manhatta, a 10 minute documentary film about New York released in 1921. Manhatta was hailed as the first avant-garde film, and traces a day in the life of New York from sunrise to sunset, punctuated by lines of Walt Whitman's poetry.

In 1932, he moved to Mexico and worked for the government there, helping its efforts to reconstruct the country after the revolution. While in Mexico, he became a committed socialist, and inspired by the revolutionary movement there, he started to make politically committed still photographs, and to produce government-sponsored documentary films. For example, Redes (Nets) and La Ola (The Wave), released in 1934, showed the economic problems confronting the fishing families in a village near Vera Cruz.

His most ambitious and controversial production, Native Land (1942) evolved from a Congressional hearing into anti-trade union activities, and was about the violations by US employers of their workers' terms and conditions of employment. It was released in 1941 on the eve of the second World War, and so was considered politically unacceptable and banned. It went on to win a number of awards and is today considered a classic of social realist film-making.

As Strand’s career progressed, his work became increasingly politicised, and more focused on social documentary. His choice of where to take photographs was invariably politically motivated: for example, his locations were often places where regional identity was being impacted by global modernity.

 

1 The Family Luzzara The Lusettis 1953 by Paul Strand Paul Strand Archive Aperture Foundation

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

 

One of Strand’s most celebrated images, The Family, Luzzara, (The Lusetti’s) was taken in a modest agricultural village in Italy’s Po River valley for the photobook Un Paese, for which he collaborated with the Neo-Realist writer, Cesare Zavattini. This hauntingly direct photograph depicts a strong matriarch flanked by her brood of five sons, all living with the aftermath of the Second World War.

He went on to work with Pare Lorentz on The Plough that Broke the Plains, following which he and other progressive filmmakers organized Frontier Films to produce a series of pro-trade union and anti-fascist films. Frontier Films was one of the many left-leaning organisations identified as ‘subversive’ by the US Attorney General and was persecuted in the anti-communist hysteria known as the McCarthy Period.

In 1949, Strand left the USA for France to escape the McCarthy witch-hunts, at the same time as the first trial of his friend, the Communist Alger Hiss. His movements around Europe were still closely monitored by the US security services, however.

Unable to finance film-making after World War II, Strand turned to the printed publication for a format that might integrate image and text in a manner akin to the cinema. He is perhaps best known today through that series of books he produced, which were in the form of portraits of places. He felt he could reach wider audiences this way: Time in New England (1950), a collaboration with Nancy Newhall, sought to evoke a sense of past and present through images of artefact and nature, combined with quotations from the region's most lucid writers.

Other books included La France de Profil (1952), Un Paese (featuring photographs of Luzzara in Italy, with text by Cesare Zavattini, 1955), Tir a'Mhurain/Outer Hebrides (with Basil Davidson in 1962), Living Egypt (1969, with James Aldridge) and Ghana: An African Portrait (also with Basil Davidson, 1976).

His work with Davidson in the Hebrides reflects the social sensitivities of the people who live on the islands and who have fought the elements for centuries, battled poverty and oppression and are still fighting to maintain their autonomy and freedom from exploitation and domination by foreign landlords. You can sense strong elements of resistance, resilience and stoicism, etched in the faces of those portrayed.

 

4 Milly John and Jean MacLelllan South Uist Hebrides 1954 by Paul Strand Paul Strand Archive Aperture Foundation. Photograph Victoria and Albert Museum London

Milly, John and Jean MacLellan, South Uist, Hebrides © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

 

Strand conjured the sights, sounds and textures of a place steeped in the threatened traditions of Gaelic language, fishing and the agricultural life of pre-industrial times.

Because of his socialist sympathies, Strand insisted that his books be printed in East Germany, even though this meant that they were initially banned from the US market. At his death in 1976, he had been photographing for nearly three-quarters of a century, gradually finding his ideal of beauty and sense in nature and the simple life. Strand was one of the greatest and most influential photographers of the 20th century whose images have helped define the way fine art and documentary photography are understood and practised today.

Why was such a great photographer suspected of communism, and monitored by the FBI? Although he was never officially a member of the Communist Party, many of Strand’s collaborators were either Party members, like James Aldridge and Cesare Zavattini or were prominent socialist writers and activists, such as Basil Davidson. Many of his friends were also Communists or were suspected of being so, including the MP D. N. Pritt; film director Joseph Losey; Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid; and the actor Alex McCrindle.

But the main reason was surely because of the way Strand's art expressed his politics. What characterises Strand’s work is the complete lack of artifice. The people in his images come across as perfectly natural, relaxed and unposed, although that belies his meticulous framing and even staging in order to achieve what he wanted. In his photos we are confronted with a rich and varied humanity, made up of individual characters who nevertheless make us feel involved with them, part of their lives.

The French artist Claude Roy said about their collaboration:

‘Strand chooses his path, a slow and temperamental one, not a hasty one, but a thoughtful one, a path that had no system, no other goal but that of capturing the greatness of humanity, the simplest and most naked truth’.

The images speak to us, we enter their lives in a kind of mute, empathetic, visual rapport. The viewer does not have the feeling that the photographer is imposing his own individualistic point of view and interposing himself between the figures in the photograph and the viewer. Strand makes himself invisible, as all great photographers are able to.

This aesthetic expression of his social and political commitment is surely why he was monitored by the anti-communist US state security services. He was a pioneer in 20th century avant-garde photography who was able to demonstrate to the world the effectiveness of art in promoting social change.

Paul Strand: Photography and Film For the 20th Century
Victoria and Albert Museum, London. From 19 March – 3 July 2016.

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John Green

John Green is a journalist and broadcaster. He has authored and edited several books and anthologies on a wide range of subjects including political biographies, labour history, poetry, natural history and environmental affairs.