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 …

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Letters

Revelations December 3, 1998