PHILADELPHIA — No small part of the very large achievement of Paul Strand (1890-1976) is how clearly his work disproved the assumption that photography was inherently inferior to painting. That achievement is on magnificent display in “Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography.” It runs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition’s only North American venue, through Jan. 4
So there’s a certain irony in Gustave Courbet, a painter, offering the nearest equivalent to Strand. His photographs, like Courbet’s paintings, have a solidity and weight new to their medium. At least one photograph in the show, “Rock, Port Lorne, Nova Scotia,” from 1919, could be a Courbet (or photograph of one).
Each man’s work was a kind of pivot. Courbet did so much to enable the modernity of modern art. Strand did so much to make a medium that was modern in history (having been invented less than a century earlier) become modern in style and content, too. Alfred Stieglitz, Strand’s mentor, was the evangelist for photography as fine art. Taking up the doctrine, Strand gave it unmistakable substance.
The first photograph in the show, “Railroad Sidings,” from 1914, presents a striking tangle of angles and curves. It recalls Stieglitz’s photograph on a similar subject, “The Hand of Man.” Both are marvels of texture, courtesy of locomotive steam. But there’s a key difference. Stieglitz plays up vaporousness, with more steam, as well as smoke and clouds. With Strand, one can already see the pursuit of a greater solidity. How solid? A dozen years later a photograph like “Cobweb in Rain, Georgetown, Maine” would manage to impart mass to gossamer and liquid.
Solidity and mass were anathema to Pictorialism, the reigning school in art photography. With its love of rarefied subject matter and gauzy textures, Pictorialism aped painting and etching. The idea was to make photography “artistic” by mimicking other fine arts.
It’s true, speaking of other fine arts, that there’s an intensely sculptural quality to Strand’s “Wall Street, New York,” from 1915. And it’s a platinum print, whose fine-grained softness made that process the overwhelming preference at that time for art photography.
Softness, though, is just about the last thing one associates with this image. Showing the J.P. Morgan building in downtown Manhattan, it presents a vision of capitalism as monumental, inexorable, blank . Four shadowed embrasures in the façade form black rectangles that dominate the image. They loom over the men and women who trudge down the sidewalk. The pedestrians’ hats and overcoats could be prison garb. It’s a breathtaking vision of power and powerlessness. Strand was very much a man of the left (as was Courbet, for that matter). But “Wall Street,” unlike the actual location, transcends left and right. Strand has much larger concerns, leaving Morgan far behind, to evoke qualities as eternal, and mythic, as Midas.
A year later Strand managed to bring monumentality to portraiture. In their unflinching candor, his series of surreptitiously taken street portraits look back to Frans Hals and ahead to Diane Arbus. The titles are generic — “Blind Woman,” “Yawning Woman,” “Man in a Derby” — and the nobility of the downtrodden they testify to is a cherished abstraction among those who have never been trod upon. No matter: These photographs offer the overwhelming specificity of flesh-and-blood people, individuals who may be anonymous but are in no way negligible. There is nothing, nothing, abstract about them.
It’s telling that when Strand attempted photographic abstractions that same year, the bowls and railings and chairs in them would remain discernible — as discernible and solid (that word again) as the forthrightly upright pickets of “White Fence, Port Kent, New York,” also from 1916.
The remarkable thing is that Strand had another six decades of highly productive work ahead of him. The PMA recently came into possession of more than 3,000 Strand prints, giving it the largest collection of his work. It draws on those holdings for a comprehensive view of the career. There are some 250 of his photographs in the show, along with books, footage from three of the five films he made, and such ephemera as his travel-itinerary cards and his wife’s sketchbook. Also on display are four Stieglitz photographs, a Jerome Liebling portrait of Strand and his wife (Liebling was a student of Strand’s), and paintings by such friends and associates as Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley.
Sense of place would emerge as an overriding concern of Strand’s. The show devotes sections to his work in Maine (the near-sacramental exactitude of his nature studies presages the photographs of Minor White and Paul Caponigro), the Gaspé Peninsula, the American Southwest, Mexico, New England, France (where Strand moved in 1950), northern Italy, the Hebrides, Morocco, Egypt, Ghana, Romania.
There being so many places suggests restlessness. Something quite different comes through in nearly all of Strand’s photographs: a profound rootedness and almost radical simplicity. There’s also a growing awareness of the weight of time. It’s one more thing for Strand’s camera to make substantial. In so many of these photographs, “weathered” is less description than category of value.
The way rootedness and simplicity combine with the weight of duration in Strand’s work may receive its finest expression in his best-known book, “Time in New England” (1950). What silver and gold are for most of us, clapboard and stone were for Strand. His New England feels very old, so old as to seem timeless. Rather than quaintness, he brings out a classicism in such picture-postcard subjects as church, mill, tombstone, grizzled Vermonter faces.
One way Strand does this is through the casual precision of his eye. In “Toward the Sugar House, Vermont” the precision comes in the way an open door (or is it a window?) frames a birch tree, which in turn triangulates with two birches behind it. The casualness comes in the canting of the frame and the obscuring of the distant sugar house, which is also slightly off-center. A similar casual precision is evident in Strand’s picture of the Lusetti family, in Luzzara, Italy, in 1953. Six people, two steps, one doorway, and one bicycle appear in such a relaxed arrangement that one might easily overlook that the barefoot man with arms crossed couldn’t be more centered in the frame if he’d been put there by plumb line. No one noticed, but Strand did — or, even harder to pull off, having placed the man in the center just so, organized everyone else (the bicycle, too) so that they looked anything but just so.
The show concludes quite wonderfully. One of Strand’s most famous photographs is of his Akeley motion picture camera. It’s a Machine Age masterpiece, with nothing casual about its metallic precision. This is very far from clapboard and stone and weathering. Except for this: A camera “embalms” time, in the perfectly chosen verb of the French film critic André Bazin. So the Akeley isn’t just a thing of beauty in its own well-tooled right. It’s also a talisman of Strand’s art. Imagine, then, how marvelous it is to come to the last gallery and find Strand’s Akeley there (along with two of his still cameras). It’s like seeing, say, Richard Avedon’s “Dovima with the Elephants” in one gallery — to cite a comparably familiar classic photograph — and then, several galleries later, encountering Dovima herself flanked by a pair of pachyderms. It’s so much better than that, actually: Movie cameras, unlike fashion models and elephants, don’t wrinkle.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.