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Revelations

In response to:

Strand's Great Moment from the May 14, 1998 issue

To the Editors:

The month of May was devoted almost entirely to grass-cutting, so I have only now gotten to Henry Allen’s fine review of the Metropolitan’s exhibition Paul Strand circa 1916 [NYR, May 14].

It was a fine review, at least, in its appreciation of Strand’s earliest mature work—the work immediately in view—but a little crude, I’m afraid, in its dismissal of Strand’s later work. Allen says, “Paul Strand made great photographs when he was in his twenties. He made good ones for the rest of his life.” This is not the appraisal of one who has looked with attention at Strand’s achievement.

By the time he was sixty, Strand had produced during four decades a body of photographs of intense originality and stunning beauty, from which serious photographers will take fundamental nourishment for as long as the medium seems worthy of further attention.

The later work does, of course, build on the earlier triumphs. Mushroom and Grasses (1928), for example, might be thought of as a reworking of the great Wire Wheel of 1920, but the new version is even bolder than the first one: here even the forest floor has been subjected to the aesthetic of industrial precision. The familiar ellipse—the most favored modernist shape—appears once more, not this time in the guise of a toothed gear, or roller-bearing, or Michelin tire, but as the cap of a mushroom, and the steel spokes are replaced with blades of grass of industrial tensile strength.

Or one might consider the superb Blind Woman (1916) as a sketch for Mr. Bennett (1944). She is simple enough for a poster—is in fact an object, a clear principle, something we can grasp within the rubric of our political understanding. We can see her but she cannot see us. Mr. Bennett on the other hand stares back, right into the eyes and the soul of the intruding, foreign photographer, and into our eyes and souls also, and they and we all see something terrifying.

Strand’s work Circa 1916 is splendid, but (of course) not every picture of that period was of equal merit. Nesting Bowls (or Abstraction) of 1915 has been regularly noted, because it has seemed the most “abstract” of these early pictures. It has never seemed to me a very interesting picture, or conspicuously superior to the scores of imitations of it that filled the popular photography magazines during the next thirty years. Strand’s picture was easy to imitate because it is fundamentally a simple picture, concerned with not much more than a cubist version of egg-and-dart ornament.

At the other end of the scale one must put White Fence, a picture, Ithink, that has etched itself into the pictorial memory of every young photographer who ever saw it, except perhaps for the most insensitive.

It is true that in the last decades of his life Strand produced a great deal of work that was pedestrian, if measured against the standard of his best, but that decline did not begin until he was a generation past his twenties. In the early Fifties, after the publication of Time in New England,* Strand’s first and best book, and during the height of the McCarthy panic, he expatriated himself—as a matter either of principle or of self-preservation, or perhaps as an inseparable mixture of the two. From that time forward he reworked that first book repeatedly, first in Western Europe, and then with increasing futility in countries of the Eastern Bloc, where he understood neither language nor (more important) the meanings of the things he photographed. There is not much to praise in most of this work, except the dogged courage of it, and the fidelity to his conception of his role as a photographer, and the devotion to the highest standards of craft. But this late work is not the issue here.

Those who prefer the Strand of the Teens to that of the Twenties or the Forties might cite the robust vigor and graphic simplicity of the work, which perhaps makes it more easily accessible than his later work. The same people might—for the same reasons—prefer the Edward Weston of the peppers and shells, and the heroic heads against the Mexican sky, to the more complex work that dates from the mid-Thirties. On the level of taste one preference is perhaps as good as another, but on the level of history we should say that Strand and Weston moved on to more difficult problems because the earlier ones were no longer challenging. In the early Forties they were still pushing against the known boundaries of their art, and the best of the work they did then remains a challenge and a mystery to some of the best photographers working today. Of course, the White Fence does also.

The easiest way to praise anything is to note that it is better than some other thing. This method, carried to its logical conclusion, finally descends to the statement that nothing made in the past two centuries is as good as the things made by F.J. Haydn—or some other hero of personal choice. The statement might well be true, in the eyes of God and the very greatest critics, but it is hardly cogent. It says nothing useful about Haydn, and assigns ten thousand superb artists to a critical limbo in which they are classed as LESS THAN HAYDN.

John Szarkowski
East Chatham, New York

Henry Allen replies:

I confess that when all the looking and thinking was done, I relied on that most happy but least arguable of critical criteria—epiphany. Therefore I’ll pass on arguing with Mr. Szarkowski’s graceful and well-educated reasoning. As it happens, the epiphany was back in my darkroom days when someone showed me the early Paul Strand that Mr. Szarkowski finds uninteresting—Nesting Bowls. The world changed. Ah, youth. Much as I admire it, Strand’s later work has rarely evoked the same visceral mystery for me. And the early work still does. I should add that I can’t claim any unique authority for my revelation. Others have had it too.

  1. *

    Oxford University Press, 1950.

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