Paul Strand, New York, 1921. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

About the Cover

In American photography, nobody traveled as far, as fast, and as passionately as Paul Strand (1890-1976). By the middle of the First World War, Strand was already in the process of breaking with the tradition of photography he had embraced under the tutelage of Alfred Stieglitz and was making some of the most innovative photographs ever. Well before the experiments of Rodchenko and Lissitzky in revolutionary Russia, Strand was composing a sharp-angled view of the world, in which a still life of a jug and a lime, or the shadows on a porch, promised to renovate human vision and make it modern. His commitment to a starker photo aesthetic, purged of any affiliation with painting and drawing, appeared manifesto-like in the last issue of Stieglitz’s Camerawork, once the bible of moody, atmospheric photography. Strand’s formal brilliance was wedded to a socialist politics that also produced the most radical street photographs ever made in this country, anonymous portraits of ordinary people as important to photography as the dwarfs and beggars of Velasquez were to the painting of an earlier time. It seems that every 20 years or so, we need to return to Strand’s work to rediscover its depth and relevance. The acquisition of the Strand Archive by the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the Aperture Foundation has provided the occasion, in a comprehensive retrospective (through January 4) that draws on an archive of some 3,000 prints. What emerges from this detailed presentation, according to curator Peter Barberie, is an artist who continued to make intensely imagined work throughout his career – and never gave up his political idealism. “Since the last major Strand exhibition in 1998,” says Barberie, “there has been a tendency to regard the World War as a watershed, and that after that period his work was somehow less interesting. Likewise, Strand stuck to his humanist position in the face of more detached and critical work by Frank, Arbus, Winogrand and others.“ So he might seem well out of fashion. But Strand’s question was a profound one: how to make humane photographs in a machine age, with a machine as a tool. His answers produced profound photographs. The series of portraits he made in the 1920s of his wife, Rebecca Salsbury, display both objectivity and passion. In the cover photograph, a direct, almost clinical examination seems fired by a desire to dwell on every detail close up, as if the photograph might divulge something beyond appearances. “In these portraits,” adds Barberie, “Strand attempts to show all her various aspects, from a mask to sensuality.” Stieglitz criticized them, perhaps feeling they encroached on the territory of his own portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, but Strand went ahead undeterred, relying on his sentiment for other people to make remarkable likenesses of individuals he saw or knew in New England, Mexico, and Italy, portraits that stand at the very heart of his work. “Photographs considered ‘classic’ can come to seem remote,” says Barberie. “All the more reason to engage them anew and see how they tie together.”