REVIEW: Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century at the V&A


Wall Street, 1915

The Paul Strand retrospective, on at the V&A until July 3rd, rewards a second visit. I’d been a few weeks ago, but the exhibition puts so much emphasis on Strand’s politics that it’s easy to be distracted from the art.

His politics, it must be said, were impressive: Strand, born to bohemian parents in New York in 1890, was a founder of the Photo League, who believed in using photography and film to advocate social causes.

Despite being well-connected – Alfred Stieglitz was a fan, promoting Strand’s work in his 291 Gallery and in Camera Works – Strand was not drawn to the dazzle of New York society or the emerging glamour of Hollywood. Instead he filmed poor fishing villages in Mexico, and photographed ordinary people in small working-class communities in Canada, the US, Europe and Africa.

Strand was never a member of the Communist Party in America, but, as a supporter of the rights of workers, he was sympathetic to the cause and had many Communist friends. Wiki says: “Strand was also closely involved with Frontier Films, one of more than 20 organisations that were identified as ‘subversive’ and ‘un-American’ by the US Attorney General.”

The “Red Scare” of 1947-57, when McCarthyism targeted many left-wing intellectuals and artists, was a major factor in Strand’s moving to France in 1949. Tellingly, Strand insisted that his books should be printed in Leipzig, in Communist East Germany, even if this meant that they were initially banned in the US.


Wild Iris, Maine, 1927-28


Driftwood, Dark Roots, Maine, 1928

After moving to France aged 59, Strand photographed his garden at Orgeval, continuing a fascination with nature from earlier years. Small and apparently straightforward though they are, these studies of driftwood, rocks, leaves, and tree trunks are surprisingly complicated and visually challenging.

Strand’s nature photographs avoid conventionally attractive compositions and strong crops, a far cry from the graphic clarity of his early work (e.g., Wall Street, 1915.)

In Wild Iris, Maine (1927-28), the blades in the centre are clean and healthy, but one rotting leaf curls into the bottom of the frame. The fronds of fern in the top left are fresh, while those top right seem to be curling and slowly dying. It’s an odd composition, with zero regard for easy aesthetics. Strand’s photographs of driftwood and tree stumps are so convoluted it’s hard to make out a focus in the picture, let alone why this particular rock or stump caught his attention.

This unconventional framing carried over into Strand’s portraits.


Young Woman and Boy, Toluca, Mexico, 1933

People are positioned with great precision, but off-centre, so part of a hat or a shoulder, a head or feet, are cropped out of the shot. It changes the dynamic of the composition, makes it less classic, less conventional.

Another thing Strand’s nature shots have in common with his portraiture is deep, black shadows.


 Gateway, Hidalgo, Mexico, 1933

Strand’s photographs combine finest detail – fabric textures, wood grain, painted walls – with pitch black shadows. The motif of a black door, and a face looming out of the darkness, recurs throughout his career.


Mrs Archie McDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954


Mr. Bolster, Weston, Vermont, 1943


The Lusetti Family, Luzzara, Italy, 1953

Families are another recurring theme of Strand’s work. He photographed them in France and Italy, Mexico and Ghana, grouped formally, and often in front of one of those darkened doorways. The surroundings – always basic, even primitive in comparison to Strand’s own background and upbringing – and the people seem to be made of the same substance. The people are part of the landscape, and the landscape is part of them.

This is where Strand’s photography could have teetered over into patronising anthropology: “Look at these interesting specimens, these noble savages!” But his unconventional framing and flat lighting stop the work from becoming conventionally attractive.

One of the last images in the exhibition circles back on many of Strand’s photographic obsessions. It’s a later nature study, from Orgeval in 1958: a group of little asters glow in the middle of a dark rockery, some petals fallen on the soil below. It’s a complicated arrangement, with black shadows but the textures of the leaves and rocks perfectly delineated. It’s titled The Happy Family. People as landscape, flowers as people. Paul Strand, ever the egalitarian.


The Happy Family, Orgeval, France, 1958

Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century, is on at the V&A until Sunday July 3rd

© Fiona Hayes 2016

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