Paul Strand, V&A, review: 'a moving experience'

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Place to Meet, Luzzara, Italy 1953 (detail)
Place to Meet, Luzzara, Italy 1953 (detail) Credit: © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Mark Hudson applauds the V&A's beautifully put-together retrospective of the pioneering American photographer

Paul Strand’s photographic portraits give the impression of extending time far beyond the pressing of the camera shutter. In the most famous, of a sun-bronzed French farm hand, taken in 1951, the subject stares back at us with a hypnotic, almost cross-eyed intensity that seems to evoke not only Strand’s experience of looking at the youth, but the surrounding culture and landscape. This is a kind of “slow photography” that’s the opposite of our idea of the camera as an instant medium, the opposite of Instagram culture. Indeed, it’s likely that Strand’s farm hand was going cross-eyed from boredom and frustration rather than empathy with the photographer: Strand thought nothing of making a subject sit for 20 minutes to take just one shot.

Strand’s images of timeless Americana – clapboard shopfronts and New Mexican adobe churches – are among the defining works of American modernist photography. Along with fellow-pioneers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, he helped turn this technical medium into an art form. A lifelong socialist, Strand sought to dignify ordinary men and women and the objects and landscapes that surrounded them. Yet he wasn’t a “people person”. Large, slow-moving and taciturn, he barely spoke to the people he photographed.

Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France 1951 (detail) Credit: © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

 

This tension between what Strand felt he ought to be doing as a politically committed artist, and what he was temperamentally designed to do as an insular and rather awkward individual runs through this handsome retrospective, which covers nearly 70 years of his career. Born into a modestly affluent New York Jewish family in 1890, he treated photography as a hobby before encountering his mentor, Stieglitz, already influential as a photographer and promoter of modern art. He ran first through Stieglitz’s “pictorialism”, then a kind of Impressionist landscape photography, followed by candid street portraiture and finally Cubist-inspired abstract image-making, all within the space of a year or so.

While he was fascinated, like many Modernists, by the energy of the city, his images of New York are far from frenetic. In Wall Street, New York from 1915, he looks down with a kind of God-like omniscience on the shadows made by commuters far below, as they pass beneath imposing architectural forms that appear abstract. Rather than seizing things in the moment, everything Strand did feels the product of intense meditative reflection.

Wall Street, New York 1915 (detail) Credit: © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

 

Photographs of his garden from the Twenties taken with long exposures, using enormous 10 x 8 inch negatives, produced such a density of detail that you feel you can practically touch and smell the moistness of earth, moss and ferns. Yet attempts to transpose this approach to portraiture proved frustrating. A tightly cropped image of his second wife Rebecca peering slightly down at us, her strong aquiline features emerging from shadow, has at first sight a kind of tragic grandeur, although her pained look may have stemmed from exasperation with Strand’s lengthy processes. The marriage didn’t last, and after falling out with Stieglitz, whom he also photographed, he made no further attempts at recording his personal life through photography. Instead, he adopted a more detached, quasi-anthropological approach to people and landscape.

His images of rural America in the Thirties, of abandoned pool halls in Colorado and Vermont churches, have a pared back abstract quality that seems to emanate naturally from the American weather and landscape. Faces of Mexican peasants exhude the mythic stillness of people who experience time differently from those in the achievement-obsessed north.

Anna Attinga Frafra, Acca, Ghana 1964 (detail) Credit: © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

 

Wanting to reach a mass audience, Strand found his natural medium in books on communities, mostly rural and often isolated. His shots of a housewife in a Maine fishing village, of knotted grass lying on a piece of stone or a broken window in an abandoned house, were intended to be experienced as moments in a narrative in which human and material textures are all organically connected. Where many photographers would have seen a depressed and dying community, Strand found lives inherently worth living.

Hounded out of America in the anti-Communist fervour of the early Fifties, Strand moved to France, where he lived until his death in 1976. But he went on looking at communities around the world, from the Outer Hebrides, where the quietly radiant faces of his fisher-folk suggest their rugged lives were actually good for them, to Italy, where he sought the inner beauty in members of a farm-workers co-operative. It helped, of course, that several of those members happened to be very handsome. His famous image of a young girl in the village of Luzzarra, The Tailor’s Apprentice, stays just the right side of sentimentality. Even stacks of milk churns exhude a feeling of moral purpose seen through his ennobling lens.

Many of Strand’s well-meaning projects fell flat: a feature film on the plight of Deep South share-croppers (part of which is shown in the exhibition) was rendered irrelevant by the outbreak of the Second World War; his last book, on Ghana, designed as a celebration of African socialism, was shelved when he discovered that the country’s prime minster had rigged a referendum to create a one-party state. Yet these tragi-comic aspects are part of what makes this beautifully put-together exhibition a moving experience. Strand’s slow photography requires a lot of looking from the viewer, but that is more than rewarded. There is no cynicism and no cynical people in Strand’s photographs. Take time to get absorbed in his faces and textures, and you’ll genuinely feel a better person for it.

Until July 3. Tickets: 020 7942 2000; vam.ac.uk