Recently I read a book about Paul Strand’s life and work published by Aperture (“Paul Strand Sixty Years of Photographs“). There were several things that struck me in particular about the enduring creation of one of America’s most prominent modernist photographers (along Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston).
As a photographer Strand was driven by an unyielding desire to see the uniqueness and unity of all life matter. Ever since he started photographing in 1909 Strand had constantly sought to express visually the intricacies, dynamism and wonders of life, from the fervent streets of New York City in the 1915s to the delicate close-up images of plants and rocks in the late 1920s, and later to village life in France, Italy, Outer Hebrides and Northern Africa.
Throughout his life he maintained a distant yet respectful approach toward his subject matter. As an artist, his credo was to reveal the inner beauty and meaning in everything that surrounded him, without affecting or distorting the inner qualities that make a common thing into something, if you can only see it. Strand believed that “you cannot say more than you see”, that “when you come to the end of seeing – when seeing is only looking – then you’ve reached the end of your road” (p. 35).
For Strand the act of seeing implied a conscious and emotional involvement in the chosen subject matter, an intellectual pursuit without which any photographer could not hope to make something valuable out of his work. In the early 1920s Strand taught students to “above all, look to the things around you, the immediate world around you. If you are alive, it will mean something to you, and if you know how to use it, you will want to photograph that meaningness” (p. 21). Strand believed that the subject matter for photography was infinite, and also the challenge of photography. To succeed photographically meant for him to be able to understand and seize the essence of the things around him. Over thirty years later he embarked upon a new project to photograph village life. For that purpose he travelled with his third wife, Hazel, to the small rural town of Luzzara, in the Po Valley in Italy. As Strand later confessed, “there was nothing immediately stirring or attractive about the place, but Hazel and I weren’t looking for picturesquennes. The plainness was a challenge; it meant you had to look closer, dig into the life with more intensity” (p. 31).
Strand lived on this quest for over sixty years, maintaining his drive, energy and clear vision until the last days of his life (he died at 85, in 1976, in France at Orgeval). Always photographing in the same manner, using large format cameras mostly on tripod and black and white negatives (color didn’t not seem real enough for him, the dye chemicals did not offer him the same texture and tonal range), his wok preserves an uncommon unity of style, unique among photographers who worked over such a long span of time. His prints bear a special quality, offering a harsh yet fully vibrant immersion in all aspects of life.
For me Strand’s work has been crucial especially in the first formative years at Harvard University, where I struggled to find interesting subjects in an environment that was so well known (classes, the Yard, the Square, etc.) and where everything I tried to do seemed to had been done over and over again. Navigating through the uncertainties of putting together a coherent final project for my photography classes, I realized that some of my “best” pictures were the ones taken either of my closest friends, or back home in Romania. And by “best” I don’t mean technically good (God knows I was using basic cameras and inexpensive lenses and films), but visually interesting in terms of subject matter and my relationship toward the chosen subjects.
I find Strand’s ideas closely linked to my current photography interests. In fact they might have shaped them unconsciously, because I haven’t gone back to Strand’s work for over 8 years although throughout this time I’ve tried emulating it. My latest undergoing project on Bucharest life explores some of the themes permeating Strand’s work. And although I’m light years away from his accomplishments, I am again overjoyed to rediscover a sense of direction in my work.
For more information on Paul Strand’s activity, check here.
All quotes are from “Paul Strand Sixty Years of Photographs”, Aperture Organization.