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Paul Strand

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Paul Strand (1890-1976) was born in New York and attended the Ethical Culture School, based on the principles of John Dewey , a popular choice for those middle class Jewish families wishing to assimilate into secular US society.(Encarta) In 1907 he joined the photography classes and club taught by Lewis Hine, the greatest American documentary photographer of his time, who was photographing living conditions in slum areas and the treatment of immigrants on arrival at Ellis Island, and campaigning for the appeal of child labor laws through photographs of "Children Working" on the streets, in factories and in mines. (Capa)

Hine took his students to Alfred Stieglitz's "Gallery at 291", which had an overwhelming impression on the seventeen-year-old Strand, who later returned to discuss his photographs with Stieglitz. After leaving school Strand started work in the family business, continuing his photography in his spare time.(Encarta) His early work followed the pictorialist model of the photo secession, but further visits to 291 and other galleries, and discussions with Stieglitz meant that Strand was kept up to date with the new modern art from Europe. He shared Stieglitz's growing disillusion with pictorialism, and in particular his growing insistence that photography should make use of the unique possibilities it offered, particularly its ability to describe the scene with greater detail and accuracy than the human hand, rather than attempt to mimic painting or drawing. (Rosenblum) Strand expressed his views clearly and forcibly in a number of articles.

Strand was one of the first photographers to take up the visual problems and approaches which he saw in modern art. By 1915 this was showing clearly in his work, with an interest in geometrical forms, patterns, rhythm, space and the division of the frame; the pictures were like a knife cutting through the butter of Pictorialism . Stieglitz greeted this with enthusiasm, showing it in the gallery and making it the feature of the final issues of Camerawork. (Web Galleries)

The "White Fence", perhaps the best known from this period, shows the white painted pickets of a fence across the lower half of the picture, setting up a rhythm which is syncopated by their imperfections. The spaces between the posts show a dark grass area, pictorially of equal weight to the white wood, setting up a 'figure-ground opposition' (we can see it as either light areas against a dark background or dark areas against a light background) in this part of the picture, producing the spatial illusion of bringing the horizontal grass expanse into a vertical visual plane. The buildings at the top of the picture instead of appearing distant, float in this same illusory space, with their further pattern of rectangles and diagonal elements. (Rosenblum) Other work of the same period show Hine's influence with direct close-up candid street pictures in which Strand caught the subjects unaware by a handheld camera with a showy fake lens at right angles to the actual more discrete aperture. "Wall Street", with its scurrying figures overshadowed by the geometry of the vast sunlit wall perhaps combines something of both approaches and is in some ways the most successful of his early works. (Web Galleries)

Strand's early work, though groundbreaking, was at least in part a series of exercises to explore how to use the medium, which accounts for their often semi-abstract nature. His preoccupation at the time was in producing pictures rather than representations of reality.(Rosenblum) While painters such as Klee worked further and further on developing a more abstract vision, moving eventually to a pure geometric or tonal abstraction, the nature of photography demanded a different path. As well as formalism, photography had to integrate the demands of its own truth to the medium in terms of precise drawing and its temporal and spatial umbilical to the subject. (Web Galleries)

It was to take Strand quite a few years to develop the ideas he had learned into his mature style. The attachment to Stieglitz which had stimulated his experiments held him back for some years as he attempted a number of projects too closely based on those of his mentor, for example the series of portraits of his wife Rebecca clearly inspired by Stieglitz's great "O'Keefe" multiple portrait. Towards the end of the twenties, Strand's increasing political involvement and the break-up of his marriage both led to a more distant relationship with Stieglitz, whose work he began to see as irrelevant because of its lack of engagement with social issues. (Capa)

Strand's own life had become increasingly involved with movies.(Capa) Starting with a collaboration with artist Charles Sheeler which produced the famous Manhatta (issued as New York the Magnificent) in 1921, he bought a camera and began to make a living as a movie cameraman. In the early thirties he was a leading figure in the documentary film movement with films such as The Wave and The Plough that Broke the Plains. Following the rise of Hitler in Germany, together with other left-wing filmmakers he founded Frontier Films to produce anti-fascist and pro-labor movies. (Web Galleries)

When the Second World War brought their filming to a halt he returned to still photography and started the production of a series of books integrating his photographs with writing. The first to be published, Time in New England (1950) with writer Nancy Newhall , used portraits, landscape and significant details together with extracts from New England writing, including the work of a number of famous writers. Strand was displeased with the reproduction of his pictures and was to personally supervise extremely carefully the production of his later works. (Web Galleries)

Following the start of the cold war the political climate in the USA changed dramatically. The House Un-American Activities Committee under Martin Dies, followed by the more notorious Senator McCarthy began his hearings and many in the arts were black-listed.(Encarta) Strand's background in left-wing film and his well-known political views (unlike most of those investigated he probably was a member of the Communist party)



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