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Paul Strand: A Retrospective at The Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza
Paul Strand, Wall Street, New York, 1915. Gelatin silver print, made in 1970 by PS. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
A CORUNA.- The Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza presents the first ever retrospective exhibition to be held in Spain of the work of North American photographer Paul Strand (New York City, 1890 – Orgeval, France, 1976). The exhibition, which is also the first full retrospective of Strand’s work to be held in Europe for at least thirty years, will be on show in the Foundation’s headquarters in A Coruña from through 14 September and then in the Foundation’s premises in Vigo, from 2 October to 11 January 2009.

The exhibition Paul Strand. A Retrospective, produced by the Foundation and curated by Rafael Llano, brings together for the first time in Spain pictures from all the different periods of Strand’s career, between 1915 and 1976.

The exhibition is organized by the Foundation in collaboration with the Aperture Foundation, a New-York based photographic publisher, exhibition gallery and depositary of the Paul Strand Archive, and with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who have lent the 114 images, all of them vintage prints (60 from the Aperture Foundation and 54 from the Philadelphia Museum of Art), that comprise the exhibition.

There has been only one previous exhibition of Strand’s work in Spain, organised by the Aperture Foundation with the title “Paul Strand. The world at my door, 1950-1976” and devoted to works from his European period, and which as part of its tour of various American and European galleries visited the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 1996.

This exclusive exhibition signals the return of the Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza to its series of temporary exhibitions devoted to great photographers of the past, which has brought to Spain the work of Arnold Newman, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and most recently, in 2005, the exhibition Icons: the best in photography and film from George Eastman House.

[1915-1920] In the beginning there was Manhattan
It is no easy task to think of any place in the world other than New York that could have given birth to modern photography. At the outset of the 20th century a combination of naval engineering, telecommunications and high-rise construction techniques was transforming the island of Manhattan into the financial center of the world. An although the photographic camera also derived from these same new technologies, very few artists in the scarce fifty years’ existence of this iconic medium had come to accept the mechanical origin of photographic images. There was a need to discover the beauty of the artistic “objectivity” appertaining to the mechanics and optics of photography, with no attempt at imitating the effects of painting or indeed any other established art form. New York was the most technologically advanced city in the world and it was therefore came as no surprise that pure photographic beauty was to be discovered there. This discovery was the work of a young New Yorker called Paul Strand.

The different stages of that discovery are illustrated in the exhibition organized by the Fundación Barrié de la Maza in the four chapters that constitute this first section:

(a) The discovery of photographic form, made by Strand thanks to the presence of European avant-garde movements in New York.
(b) The living city – activity in the city.
(c) The human factor: Strand’s “candid camera” portrays the humblest but nevertheless dignified inhabitants of the aggressive city that New York had become.
(d) The beauty of machines: the camera “portrays” the beauty of other machines.

[1920-1928] The camera investigates Nature
Whenever he can, Strand got out of the big city to photograph “the opposite” of what he had left behind: landscapes that are unspoiled are hardly touched by the hand of man; close-ups of natural objects such as plants, leaves or stones; small rural villages where human life is organized in direct contact with nature, in a very different way from big city life.

[1930-1935] The camera investigates culture: Mexico
Strand discovered the beauty of the deserts of New Mexico and investigated the way of life created by the Native American tribes who inhabited them. After the break-up of his first marriage, Strand remained in Mexico to continue his photographic research into a culture that was so different from his own, American and big city, with results that would have a defining influence on his career.

[1945-1950] North American history and traditions
After almost ten years during which Strand practically abandoned photography and devoted himself to documentary film-making, his return to working with the still camera took him to New England, the heartland of North American tradition. His re-encounter with the photographic camera produced his first major book: Time in New England. Every inch of Strand’s photographs contains graphic differentiations, whose mutual interrelationship nevertheless gives rise to a simple, dense whole.

[1950-1960] European peoples and cultures: France, Italy, Scotland
Having moved to Europe as a protest against McCarthyism, Strand continued to take photographs in our continent. Here he found that the wounds of the Second World War had still not healed in the social and cultural sphere. Strand’s portrait photography reaches its full maturity.

[1960-1975] Workers of our time
A key element in the development of all the cultures that Strand had investigated, from his sojourn in Mexico to the trips he was now making in Europe and Africa, were working men and women. Outstanding dignity and a special physical beauty are the defining attributes of all the ordinary working people photographed by Strand.

[1965-1975] Democracy around the world
The culture of human dignity and progress through work is by no means the exclusive heritage of America or the West. The beauty of “ordinary” men and women, hailed by Walt Whitman as the democratic hope for the future, is photographically revealed in the research carried out by Strand in various Islamic countries (Egypt, Morocco) and other African nations.

[1965-1975] Science and progress
The engineering that had made the “miracle” of New York possible since the final years of the previous century continued to bring progress to peoples and nations across the world. Machines are now an inseparable part of man’s work with nature and the democratic development of societies, and is associated in Strand’s work with portraits and landscapes alike.

[1950-1975] Family roots
Together with individual portraits, the relationship between men and women and their nearest and dearest was the subject of painstaking attention by Strand. The multiple formal elements that make up these compositions is complemented by the particular affection revealed by family relationships, giving rise to a series of unforgettable group portraits.

[1920-1975] The infinity of life in my garden
Strand grows old, but the beauty of the life that surrounds him is inexhaustible. The journey begun by Strand when he visited the wild coasts of Maine in the nineteen-twenties to photograph flowers, shrubs and plants promises to be never-ending: the entire universe is present in his garden.

Publication of the first Spanish monograph of Strand’s work
The Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza is highlighting the importance of this first full retrospective of Paul Strand’s work in Spain with the publication of a monographic catalogue that will make up for the total lack of publications on the photographer in our country.

The catalogue, published with the title Paul Strand. En el principio fue Manhattan [Paul Strand. In the beginning there was Manhattan], will contain full-page four-color reproductions of the 114 images in the exhibition and an essay on the photographer by the exhibition’s curator, Rafael Llano. This text, which will also appear in English, is illustrated with works by Strand and other major American photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Lewis Hine, Clarence White, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner.

In addition to the contextualised analysis of Strand’s major contributions to the art of photography, the essay also covers the years that Strand devoted to working on documentary film-making and motion picture photography: Strand as a pioneer of independent film-making in America, with the short he co-directed with Charles Sheeler: Mannahatan (1921); as a pioneer of Mexican documentary film-making, with Redes [Waves] (1934); and Strand as cameraman and director of civilian documentary films for the independent production company Frontier Films (1936-1942).

Paul Strand – a profile
Paul Strand is one of the uncontested masters of the art of photography. The start of his career is associated with the name of fellow-American Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). The gallery “291”, founded in 1906 and directed by the latter in New York until 1917, was languishing after having exhausted the stylistic possibilities of photographic pictorialism during its first few years of existence. It was then that Paul Strand’s ‘straight photography’ appeared on the scene. The direct images, with no tricks of process and their powerful formal contrasts, that were created by Strand’s camera were hailed by Stieglitz as the beginning of the modern period of photographic art.

In 1916 Strand gave his first individual show in this gallery, which shortly before had seen its walls hung with the first works by Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi ever to be displayed in America. As well as organizing this exhibition, Stieglitz paid considerable critical attention to Strand’s work in the last two issues of the mythical photography magazine he edited, Camera Work. With the discovery of this new photographer Camera Work could be said to have fulfilled its mission: modern art had been displayed and finally accepted in the United States. Stieglitz in fact ceased to publish this magazine.

From its beginnings in and around Gallery “291”, Paul Strand’s photographic art anticipated many of the successes that art in general, and photography in particular, was to achieve in his country and the rest of the world during the twentieth century. His ‘straight photography’, that had so amazed Stieglitz, a leading proponent of Pictorialism, came almost a decade before the Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’) movement founded in Germany by Renger-Patzsch. The interest in machines, ships and large-scale steel constructions as subjects for photography that appeared in Strand’s photographs from the latter half of the second decade of the century predated Léger’s canvases on the same subjects, on the other side of the Atlantic, which were painted in the early nineteen-twenties. His snapshots illustrating the topic of movement in the streets of New York likewise anticipated the ‘decisive moment’ that was later to characterize the photographic work of Cartier-Bresson. It was not only machines and the bustle of Manhattan streets that started to feature in his photographs: nature also became the subject of unusual close-ups in Strand’s photography, works which were the forerunners of Weston’s pictures on similar themes, or those by the later American photographers Adams, Cunningham or Van Dyke.

Throughout the nineteen-twenties Strand continued to be linked both personally and artistically to Stieglitz, his mentor. Proof of this is the series of portraits of Rebecca Strand, the former’s first wife, which he produced in parallel to the series Stieglitz had commenced a few years earlier with Georgia O’Keeffe. The crash of ’29, with all the dramatic social consequences that came in its wake, however, meant that social concern, which had to a large extent been absent from the ‘aestheticism’ of the older photographer, began to feature large in Strand’s works.

Without foresaking any of the formal severity of his compositions and the meticulousness of his work in the darkroom, which the young photographer had learnt from Stieglitz, Strand’s photography from the nineteen-thirties onward went down a road in which the formal dimensions of photography would go hand-in-hand with cultural and social aspects.

Strand’s contact with the Native American peoples in New Mexico, and his subsequent trip to Mexico, gave rise in the nineteen-thirties to his first major photographic portfolio. He had found the opportunity to work on all kinds of genre: landscapes, portraits, snapshots of movement, social photography, photographs of works of popular art and many more besides. Nevertheless, all his images were bound together by a common language, constructed with solid forms and incredibly subtle drawings and tonal shadings which, although the result of cold impersonal observation, showed an interest in the life and problems of ‘ordinary people’.

Strand had discovered what really moved him, but such was his command of photographic language that all his emotion was wholly sublimated in the precision of the formal composition and the absolute virtuosity of the prints he made. Strand’s photographs thus revealed the sphere in which society met the world and nature, and these met progress and human dignity: the ground of culture. Men and women who for centuries had transformed nature in order to survive had ennobled at one and the same time both themselves and the societies to which they belonged. The veneration he showed for traditions in the world of work and society at large, not of the Rousseauist kind, as was the case of his contemporary and documentary photographer Flaherty, but rather as one that embraced all forms of technological progress, opened up for Strand a perspective in which every society and every country could be the subject of photographic research. His work in Mexico in the early nineteen-thirties, which is the first in the series, predated that other great photographic narrative on the ordinary people of America, which began in the middle of the same decade with the photo-journalistic reports for the first American illustrated magazines (Life, Look, etc.), continued in the ‘photo-book’ format with titles such as Bourke-White & Caldwell’s You have seen Their Faces (1937) or Dorothea Lange & Paul S. Taylor’s An American Exodus (1939) and culminated in the brilliant and acid Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) by James Agee & Walker Evans.

Strand once more came to the forefront of the history of photography when in 1945 the MoMA’s Photography Department, the first of its kind in any museum dedicated to modern art, devoted its first major retrospective to neither Alfred Stieglitz, nor Weston, nor Adams nor a Cartier-Bresson, but to Paul Strand. By then the photographer had embarked on a ‘photographic expedition’ to investigate nature and American culture in and from the ‘old’ and ‘new’ New England. From this photographic and textual record on the heritage left by the first colonists and the work of its current inhabitants in factories and universities he produced his first photo-book: Time in New England.

When the book was published in the United States (1950), Strand had already left his homeland. The witch-hunt started by McCarthy, to which some of his closest friends and collaborators had fallen victim, had created a climate that the photographer found intolerable. He therefore decided to move to France and continue his work from there until the political climate in America took a change for the better.

His photographic journeys around various European countries from his new-found base in Orgeval, close to Paris, produced three photo-books which heralded the full maturity of the methodology first used in Time in New England. These were La France de Profil (1952), with text by Claude Roy; Un paese (1955), with texts written by the Italian neo-realist scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini, and finally Tir A’Muhurain (1962), on the Hebrides islands off the coast of Scotland. Although he continued to make prints for exhibitions of his new work, Strand had discovered in the photo-book format a system which, with no deterioration of graphic quality – he was immensely meticulous regarding every aspect of the printing of his photographs in these publications – allowed him to bring the results of his work to a much wider audience than would have visited one of his exhibitions, regardless of the number of interested or curious visitors these might attract.

One consequence of Strand’s interest in democratizing the art of photography were his subsequent journeys to non-Western countries. He first visited two North African countries, where, a Jew by birth, he spent months travelling around Islamic Egypt and Morocco, getting to know their inhabitants, investigating their cultures, discovering their traditions and exploring their possibilities of progress. These journeys gave birth to a new photo-book, Living Egypt (1969). He then penetrated the heart of Africa, where his cameras investigated and recorded the recently created independent state of Ghana, a journey that would also later result in a publication: An African Portrait (1976).

All these works by Strand were inspired by democratic convictions that could not stop on the threshold of the Western world, because dignity and the progress of society could not be limited to a handful of European and American countries. In this respect Paul Strand was also a forerunner of the globalization of culture and the respect for what is local. Before new technologies brought about the present state of communication and exchange of information between the furthest-flung countries on the face of the Earth, Strand persevered in taking his camera, itself an instrument of new communications technology when seen from the standpoint of traditional art forms such as painting and literature, to distant corners of our planet that were in principle strangers to his American cultural roots.

This was no journalistic initiative, however legitimate and necessary these may be: since World War II the majority of the Western world’s best-known photographers, grouped together in Magnum and other international news agencies, had traveled around the world to cover conflicts and international crises wherever they flared up. Strand’s photo-books share with the work of the great photo journalists, his contemporaries, an interest in showing the most distant corners of our planet through a photographic lens, but his perspective is not that of journalism, of providing information on the events of today, but rather a humanistic, and in a sense more philosophical, one: in the past of the peoples he visits with his camera he seeks to discover the future of progress that awaits them.
This notwithstanding, Strand knew full well that in order to discover the beauty that exists in the world there was no need to travel to exotic places. As he had already done in his journeys to the coasts of Gaspé or the arid desert lands of New Mexico, Strand continued to work in Europe on his close-up photographs of the life of trees, plants and shrubs. Right next to his back door steps, to put it that way, Strand was to find themes worthy of the prolonged and loving exposure that had already characterized not only his photographs of nature and machines, but also his unforgettable portraits.

With his last portfolio, which he published shortly before his death in Orgeval at the age of 86, under the name The World on My Doorstep (1976), he proved something that his work had little by little confirmed ever since 1915: that the patience of a photographer is always rewarded by an amazing command of light and the capture of its almost infinite extension over time.

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