A Year in the Life

Paul Strand’s breakthrough moment.

“Paul Strand: Circa 1916”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
March 10-May 31

Paul Strand: Circa 1916

By Maria Morris Hambourg
The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Harry N. Abrams; 166 pages; $65

Click on any image to see an enlargement.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) enjoyed a long and prolific career spanning what amounts to five or six generations in the compressed history of 20th century photography. In the last 60 of those years he made an impressive number of worthy images, full of human dignity and topical picturesqueness and formal achievement. Had those 60 years constituted his entire career, we could relegate him to a historical back shelf along with so many other humanistic pillars of midcentury photography, stalwarts of Life and The Family of Man whose work today primarily inspires a nagging sense of duty.

For a couple of years in his youth, however, Strand was a radical Modernist who made one startling picture after another, progressing in giant leaps that apparently occurred month to month. With dazzling speed he went from being a promising imitator to discovering dozens of avenues that would be explored by others in the ensuing decades. “Paul Strand: Circa 1916” is the appropriately dazzling record of that period, gathering for the first time nearly all his surviving work of the time–a mere 60-odd photographs–into a sort of time-lapse film of the process of discovery. If you have ever wondered what inspiration might look like graphically represented, this is the show to see.

Strand was a product of the progressive Jewish New York middle class. His aunt was a pioneer of the then-new kindergarten movement, and his education was completed at the Ethical Culture School, which prized the rounding effects of training in practical skills, including–impressively for the time–photography, taught by the great Lewis Hine. His postgraduate studies took place at the New York Camera Club, a hobby league whose members were doctors and lawyers less interested in art than in craft, and then he gravitated toward the artistic forefront of the medium, namely, the Pictorialists. This movement was just beginning to splinter. Under the proprietary leadership of the photographer and all-around impresario Alfred Stieglitz, the group had called itself Photo-Secession, which sounded radical and daring, but Stieglitz was so obsessed with achieving artistic legitimacy that the group’s work restricted itself to counterfeiting the effects of drawing and painting. The images were soft, vague studies of moony, “timeless” subjects, maidens in dappled fields and the like. Edward Steichen was particularly skilled at delivering prints that looked like daubings untouched by any mechanical process and wholly innocent of the industrial world.

Soon erstwhile Photo-Secessionists were chafing under the harness, but Strand immediately took to the more conservative elements, and between 1911 and 1913 he produced appropriately languid views of shimmering water; decorative sheep; and unfocused, mildly erotic light effects. He was fascinated by the Japanese-print flatness bequeathed by the Impressionists; in Maid of the Mist, Niagara Falls (1915), he managed to cheat scale so much that the boat looks like a bathtub toy against the swirl of rocks and spume. By the time he made that picture, though, he had already taken in works by more venturesome Pictorialists that showed the modern city as itself and had produced Railroad Sidings, New York (1914): a couple of willful diagonals of boxcars surmounted by a tangle of rails and a head of steam that has nothing to do with mist.

V ery soon he was touring the country, bringing back new ideas about line and volume, as in Telegraph Poles, Texas (1915): some stripped trees leaning over, bearing aloft a neat grid of wires, towering over flatland and stumpy shacks. Nothing precious or European there, but a picture that had never been made before (but would, in one way or another, be made again and again by others over the next 50 years). Back in New York, Strand started investigating the graphic dynamism at work in the shadows thrown down by the el tracks, and he began seriously investing in the possibilities of the overhead vantage, a Modernist urban trope he would will to Berenice Abbott and sundry Germans and Russians. The scooped-out city canyon, embellished with a frieze of human heads at the bottom (, 1915), was a theme that looked new in the work of Gary Winogrand in the 1960s. The row of giant black rectangles dominating puny pedestrians walking below (Wall Street, 1915) inspired numerous social interpretations, but to our eyes it might look like an anticipation of obdurate monoliths by artists from Ad Reinhardt to Richard Serra.

In the summer of 1916, Strand went off to his family’s country house in Twin Lakes, Conn., and there he decided to take on the Cubism of Picasso and Braque using available materials. He arranged bowls, jugs, and fruit in sunlight or whipped them with the shadows of the porch railing, then left the objects alone and began rearranging the position of his camera instead. The pictures become increasingly free; they can almost be sequenced as a flipbook as they swing from still life to pure abstraction and from the ground up toward dramatic diagonals in the sky. Back in town again, he set about making portraits in the slums, arming himself with a camera equipped with a false lens at a right angle to the actual one so he could photograph unsuspecting subjects. The people–peddlers, drunks, sandwich men–are observed not just as formal objects, although they are affected by shadows and textures and sign-fragments, and not just as social types, as in Hine’s pictures, but also as complex, weathered personalities. Some of them, such as Man, Five Points Square and the iconic Blind (both 1916), are among the greatest photographic portraits ever, an accumulated life visible all at once in their subjects’ features.

Before his great surge gave out in 1917, he had also begun photographing machinery–a hallmark of the work of the two following decades in Europe and America–and he had also made a few pictures that synthesized everything he had learned. Chief among these, in my view, is From the Viaduct, New York (1916), a picture of a billboard, a false front, a couple of roofs, a fence, and some people in the street that marches the eye up one side and down the other, seamlessly blending all his knowledge of light and shade, volume and flatness, geometry and the shapes of letters, human proportion and the American scene. It has been hiding out all these years in a private collection, a barely known monument of the most liberating Modernism, the kind that the viewer can take out into the world to transform its least prepossessing elements into jazz and verve. The same could be said of the exhibition as a whole, and its splendid catalog: They animate a process that, 80 years later, still seems new.