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Strand’s Great Moment

Paul Strand made great photographs when he was in his twenties. He made good ones for the rest of his life. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has put five dozen of the great ones on view in a show called Paul Strand circa 1916. In the catalog, its curator, Maria Morris Hambourg, writes: “Although Strand was very productive for more than fifty years thereafter, his creativity never again burned with such intensity. This has never been adequately explained.” She does not try to explain it, and neither does the show. Instead, what it reveals is a moment of genius that makes you feel a little mournful at the end, as if you were leaving a summer house where you’d once more savored the quickness and possibility of youth.

Here are the clear, dark, platinum-printed pools of the famous “Wall Street,” from 1915, with its pedestrians hurling themselves past the oracular but ominously mute windows of the J.P. Morgan building; and “Blind,” from 1916, with its newspaper vendor so naked in her ignorance of the staring lens that she seems flayed, like Marsius; and “White Fence,” from 1916, with its shabby pickets running beside a barn and house with the breathtaking alacrity of the white chickens in the poem “Spring and All,” by Strand’s fellow Americanist visionary, William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens

There’s no explaining the psychic provenance of these things. Like Williams’s poem they’re gifts of a particularly American grace, with the naiveté and rawness that pass for the innocence we like to think we haven’t lost yet. They have the power of youth, like the italic interludes in Hemingway’s In Our Time, or the monumental frankness of Miles Davis’s early quintet recordings with John Coltrane, or the corner-of-the-eye perceptions of Robert Frank’s photographs in The Americans.

They have charisma in its true sense—the gift of authority and prophecy. Indeed, you can see them lurking like a genome in American photography for the rest of the century—think of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Consuelo Kanaga, or even Ansel Adams, who wrote to Strand in 1933: “I believe you have made the one perfect and complete definition of photography.” In particular, Strand’s pictures are those rarest of all things in experimental art—“successes”—whether he’s rendering girder shadows with Japanist delicacy inherited from Whistler in “New York (From the Viaduct)” of 1916 or cutting up an abstract plane with porch-rail shadows as cool and deft as the wires in a Futurist egg slicer.

In 1915 I really became a photographer,” he told Calvin Tomkins in a New Yorker profile in 1974, two years before he died. “I had been photographing seriously for eight years, and suddenly there came that strange leap into greater knowledge and sureness. I brought a group of my things in to show Stieglitz, and when I opened up my portfolio he was very surprised. I remember he called to Edward Steichen, who was in the back room at ‘291’ [Stieglitz’s gallery on Fifth Avenue], and had him come out and look, too. Stieglitz said, ‘I’d like to show these.’ He also told me that from then on I should think of ‘291’ as my home, and come there whenever I wanted. It was like having the world handed to you on a platter. It was a very great day for me.”

Circa 1916 lets you think you might be feeling the same exhilaration Strand felt back then. It isn’t the same, of course. It’s an echo modulated by the poignance of knowing that Strand would never get back to it, any more than Hemingway could return to his prose or the Paris of the Twenties.

The poignance prompts infatuation—there’s an American sentiment that treasures possibility above any possible achievement, and resents fallings-off into mere brilliance. Witness our passions for Sylvia Plath, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and James Dean, powerful but conspicuously unfulfilled talents whose work moved slightly beyond criticism when they died young, their untested genius intact. As the storied Hollywood agent is said to have said when Elvis died at forty-two: “Good career move.” And witness our grudge against Hemingway for falling into the squalor of alcoholic celebrity and losing the genius and possibility of his early work.

Strand provokes no grudges. He lived on quite healthily and quietly, declining into mere brilliance, master craftsmanship, and celebrated achievement. He didn’t make “career moves.” “He was thick and slow,” Georgia O’Keeffe says with her lethal plainness in a Canadian documentary film called Strand: Under the Dark Cloth. Fred Zinnemann, who would go on to direct High Noon, worked with Strand on a film about a Mexican fishermen’s strike, and he recalls: “He loved mankind in the abstract rather than the specific.” Virginia Steele, the second of his three wives, says: “He had great passion, humanitarianism. He couldn’t sit and touch you and caress you; could not do that.”

He was born in 1890 to a comfortable but not rich German-Jewish family in Manhattan. An only child, he was raised by a deaf grandmother and a nearly deaf mother, who probably deferred to a maiden aunt in educating Paul according to the progressive principles of Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten.

From age fourteen to nineteen he attended the Ethical Culture School on Central Park West. One of the teachers was Lewis Hine, a sociologist and photographer who documented the struggles of immigrants and the lower classes. It was Hine who took Strand to the Photo-Secession Gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, where Alfred Stieglitz was championing photography, modernism, and the work of Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, and Clarence White, among others. Strand decided on the day of his visit that he wanted to become “an artist in photography.”

After graduating, he worked at office jobs he loathed, then appalled his family by spending all his savings on a six-week tour of the museums of Europe. In 1911 he set himself up in business as a photographer, doing portraits and selling tinted photographs of colleges and fraternity houses to students. He used the soft-focus technique of the pictorialists until Stieglitz told him to stop down his lens to get the sharper effects required by the “straight” photography he was preaching at the time.

Stieglitz also came to exhibit the sort of modernist work—Picasso, Cézanne, Braque—that had exploded in America at the Armory Show of 1913. Puzzled, Strand made abstractions of his own to work out these new formulas from Europe. These included “Bowls,” and the porch-shadow pictures of 1916.

In 1917, just before America entered World War I, Stieglitz devoted the last issue of Camera Work to eleven of the best of the Strand photographs that appear in Circa 1916. Stieglitz wrote that the issue “represents the real Strand. The man who has actually done something from within…. The work is brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any ‘ism.”’

Whatever isms there are, Strand uses them as means, not ends. Later, left-wing politics would shape his choice of subjects, but in Circa 1916 the work is free of ideological concerns. Here are the famous bowls that Strand assembled in the sunlight to explore the possibilities of pure design. Then, in a social document called “Man in a Derby,” a fat man glances sideways from a park bench; he has the dignity and innocence of a privacy Strand preserved with a trick camera with its real lens sticking out the side. He took pictures of Orthodox Jews, a yawning fat woman with her blouse safety-pinned together, and a bearded old man toting a sandwich-board advertisement whose most prominent words are “The Price”—pictures one critic called “cityscapes that have faces for subjects.” Then, in another cityscape, the people are incidental while a billboard and some clapboard horizontals combine with the diagonals of leaning lumber to prove the strengths of modernist flatness and Cubist obliqueness.

Strand said in an essay of 1917 that “an intense rebirth of enthusiasm and energy” had “manifested itself all over the world. Moreover, this renaissance found its highest aesthetic achievement in America, where a small group of men and women worked with honest and sincere purpose, some instinctively and few consciously, but without any…cut and dried ideas of what is Art and what isn’t; this innocence was their real strength.”

Was it World War I that ended Strand’s great moment? In any case, the war would make cynicism a sort of etiquette, and irony a motive and tone of art and literature right up through the postmodern Nineties. Strand was neither cynical nor ironic, though he was sensitive to the tenor of the times. He wrote to Stieglitz in 1917: “It seems impossible to get away from the war—it touches everybody now, and everyone finds the same resentment and lack of enthusiasm. The mere idea of trying to create anything nowadays seems so mad.”

Strand was drafted, and turned his brief army experience in the medical corps into the start of his parallel career as a documentary filmmaker—his first idea was to film operations for doctors to see. His tone about America changed. In a series of articles, he echoed the iconoclastic ethos of the early Twenties by complaining that America had “a past and a present, indeed, which sadly needs clarification,” and noted that few artists had “come to grips with the difficult reality of America, to break through the crust of mere appearance.”

Strand would go on to make photographs for another fifty years: the precisionist interiors of his Akeley movie camera in the Twenties, his landscapes around Taos, where he moved in the circle financed and ruled by Mabel Dodge Luhan. He would gradually break with Stieglitz and take up with leftist film groups. A philosophy mediated by politics replaced the vision that had been mediated by nothing but gut immediacy, it seemed. He still made brilliant pictures, but they came to seem like the brilliant pictures of so many other photographers. The nudes of his first wife, Rebecca, echo Stieglitz’s nudes of Georgia O’Keeffe. His much-reprinted and beautiful “Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France,” from 1951, might have been taken by Irving Penn for a fashion spread on overalls over net singlets.

In 1951, disgusted with McCarthyism, he moved to Orgeval, a small town outside Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life, traveling and taking pictures in Europe and Africa until age limited him to photographing his own garden. He was no celebrity in the manner of Steichen, but he had a good career. In 1945, three decades after the pictures in Circa 1916, the Museum of Modern Art made Strand the subject of its first photographic retrospective. The Philadelphia Museum of Art retrospective of 1971 traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco and ended up at the Metropolitan. In 1990, an Aperture book called Paul Strand: Essays on His Life and Work had a selected bibliography that ran twelve pages. He died in 1976.

But his fame and genius lay in the great pictures in Circa 1916. They seem even greater when you realize that they don’t have what it usually takes to make a photographer famous—the same tone or subject in picture after picture in the manner of Stieglitz’s neoclassical authority, Ansel Adams’s fantasies of mountain purity, Diane Arbus’s freaks, or Julia Margaret Cameron’s connivance in Victorian sentimentalizing.

Strand succeeded because of his energy, curiosity, and innocence. The styles of these pictures are all over the place. The blurry back-yard pictorialism of 1913’s “Springtime on 83d Street” becomes 1917’s cool, precise planes of laundry and fences in “Geometric Backyards, New York.” Sheep and chickens abide in fuzzy fields of England and Connecticut photographed in 1911 before Strand’s break with pictorialism and his move to the harder focus that would produce 1917’s “Wheel Organization,” whose futurist pedigree derived from Duchamp at the Armory Show, and from Boccioni, Balla, and other Italian Futurists whose work Strand saw at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts in 1915.

In “Wire Wheel,” also 1917, the fragment of a license plate quotes the new arts of cubism and collage, and the headlight reflects the soaring New York buildings that epitomized possibility then. The machine and the city were the future, not the enemy, and the real subject of this photograph is not a fender but Strand’s excitement.

In 1974, Strand would make the claim that “the thing I see is something outside of myself—always. I’m not trying to describe an inner state of being.” Perhaps the knowledge that his best work was half a century gone was too hard to bear. In any case, he was denying his own accounts of the psychic electricity that lighted his early pictures, and Stieglitz’s insistence in 1917 that Strand had done “something from within.”

He preferred to see his life work as a single piece, a social and humanistic vision sharpened by the experiments with modernism that constitute the work in Circa 1916. This theory was troubling critics even before he died. Tomkins wrote in 1974 that “some critics believe that Strand’s post-1950 photographs are not as strong, over all, as the work he did earlier in his career.” Now, Hambourg dates the decline to post-1917.

Writing in Paul Strand: Essays on His Life and Work, Milton W. Brown put it delicately by saying that he couldn’t help feeling that Strand’s own vision of consistency was “a gloss to explain what he later felt to be an inconsistency or flaw in his own monolithic vision of his artistic career.”

The 1990 Strand retrospective at the National Gallery of Art took the monolithic view, giving equal value to both late and early work. This is a tempting position for curators, seeing that vast amounts of the later work are available, while the early pictures are harder to come by. But there’s no virtue in a monolithic view unless you’re propping up the load of one sort of ideology or another, aesthetic or political. As Paul Richard, art critic of the Washington Post, pointed out in his review of the retrospective:

Had Strand died in his twenties, he still would be regarded as a master. But he kept on making pictures, and lived to 85.

He never lost his seriousness, his heartfelt leftist politics, or his wonderful control of the subtlest shades of gray. What faded was his power. And his early gift for prophecy. The first rooms of his show contain some of the most prescient photos ever taken, pictures that predict Walker Evans, Edward Weston, even Robert Frank. But then the show diminishes. The pictures in its last rooms matter less and less.

The question remains: What happened?

Photographers, confronting the mathematical absolutes of time, light, and chemistry, may well suffer the exhaustions of theoretical physicists or chess players—they do early work that is not just brilliant but so transcendent that they become their own hardest acts to follow. The problem is a physical one as well. Photography is a sort of sport, in one of its aspects, and it helps to have the reflexes of the young: Strand and Stieglitz would set up their cameras on New York streets and wait for the precise pedestrian to take just the right step over the perfect shadow and then trip the shutter.

Besides, how much work of this acetylene intensity can we expect from any artist? How can we expect them to resist lapsing into the desperate celebrity of a Hemingway, or letting the temptations of fame lead them to the artistic and financial ruin of Mathew Brady?

And are we doing any better? If Strand was a product as well as a producer of his era, what can we expect in the way of more Strands now?

Honest, sincere, unconscious, innocent, strong… How strange Strand’s words sound eighty years later, when dynastic bureaucracies of museums, government arts agencies, and academia have helped to bring on the current Egyptian stasis of self-consciousness, self-reference, appropriation, replication, stale martyrdoms, and pastiche that are tangy with postmodern irony. The bright-young-man game still gets played but the charisma comes from money, cleverness, and charm.

Strand’s work had the charisma of the doctrine of progress and the revelation of what seemed to be scientific and self-evident truths. He had very little money until some relatives died, and no cleverness or charm. He didn’t need them. He did decades of hard, good work instead, and may have done it knowing it would never equal what he’d already done. If so, more credit to him. As for us, we have the truth and pleasure of Circa 1916.

Letters

Revelations December 3, 1998

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