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Paul Strand and the little man

A photographic radical, back on show in Philadelphia

George Pendle | November 11th 2014

It is perhaps the quintessential image of Wall Street. The five shadowy hollows of the J.P. Morgan building stand like solid monoliths. Beneath them scurry tiny, indistinct figures fuzzed to a light blur by motion, their own shadows spooling behind them in a thin smear of humanity—an insubstantial imprint next to the heft of the darkness above them. The photograph is the perfect play of light and shade, of the transient and the solid, of the little man and the giant forces that are lined up to crush him.

“Wall Street” (1915) is just one of many images in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Paul Strand retrospective that depict both Strand's immense ambition and the way he always kept one eye on the little man. Consisting of nearly 250 images arranged in chronological order, the exhibition showcases Strand's restless pursuit of new ways to utilise the camera, not only for artistic aims but for social reform. Born in 1890, he started out in photography by aping the prevailing school of pictorialism, a movement of softly focused images and high artificiality. This changed when, as a student, he visited Alfred Stieglitz’s New York art gallery, 291. Stieglitz, the bewhiskered lodestone of American photography, exposed the young Strand not only to cutting-edge photographers but also to the paintings of the European avant-garde, particularly the cubist works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Strand was besotted and turned photography to the creed, ditching pictorialism’s hazy forms and instead emphasising sharp shapes and geometric patterns.

He began with formal still-life images of jugs and oranges, photographed at such close range that they became alien and obscure, but he soon uncovered the abstract aesthetic within the modern American landscape. He loved the geometry of backyard washing lines, the shadows of railroad bridges, the tangle of fire escapes. In “White Fence” (1916, below), Strand turns a typical white picket fence into a brilliant study of positive and negative shapes: a dark barn setting off a white house, the fence itself concertinaing all manner of forms into the photographic space.

Strand’s vision is so much the bedrock of photography today that it can sometimes be hard to see how radical he was, or understand how such sophisticated photographs could inspire a revolt. While Stieglitz boosted for Strand’s images, stating that they were "devoid of all flim flam...devoid of any attempt to mystify...direct expressions of today", other reviewers were less enthusiastic. One wrote of “White Fence” that, “We hardly see how more contrast, emphasis, eccentricity, and ugliness could be combined within the four sides of a print.” 

Just as controversial was his interest in street photography and anonymous portraiture. At the time, portrait photography was reserved for formal family pictures or official figures. Strand chose to focus on the less well-heeled denizens of New York’s notorious Five Points slum, creating a portraiture of the overlooked and the dispossessed. Red-faced washerwomen, whiskered sandwich-board men, behatted orthodox Jews—Strand’s new quest required a whole different set of skills from his more formal aesthetic work. He now had to be both quick and furtive—tough things to be with the bulky equipment of the time—photographing people before they began to pose and lose the unselfconscious attitude he was trying to capture. To this end he attached a false lens to the side of his camera and concealed the real bellow lens in the crook of his coat sleeve, so to his subjects it looked as if he was photographing something else entirely. Even then he was occasionally found out. When he tried to photograph a woman with a cage of fortune-telling parakeets—the birds picked out fortunes from a basket with their beaks—she attacked him.

The spontaneity and empathy he displayed in his street work was unheard of at the time. In “Blind” (1916) a black-shawled blind woman is photographed head-on. A sign around her neck spells out her disability in bright white letters, and a metal “licensed peddler” medallion is pinned to her throat. She is garlanded with visual cues that her own eyes can’t see. It is a masterpiece of signs and the unsighted.

Strand was searching for a universal nobility in the common man that painters such as Manet and Cézanne had explored decades earlier but which was quite new to photography. He would eventually seek it out across the world, in shopfronts in France and town squares in Italy, in the lined faces of windswept farmers in the Hebrides and in the smooth skin of students in Ghana. Although he largely steered clear of overtly political work, it was clear from his choice of subjects where his sympathies lay.

In 1950, Strand left America for France, in protest at a political climate that made life increasingly difficult for anyone with leftist sympathies. Settling in the village of Orgeval to the north of Paris, where he would live until his death in 1976, he would counterpoint his many travel projects with a remarkable suite of photographs made within the confines of his garden. Here he studied the whorls and spirals of flowers, the woven striations of leaves. Throughout his life Strand had tried to show that, despite deprivations, the human spirit was undiminished. Now, at the end of it, he seemed to be saying that yes, this might be the best of all possible worlds, but we must still cultivate our garden.

Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography Philadelphia Museum of Art, to Jan 4th 2015

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