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Early Experiments
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Early Experiments

In 1907, while a student at New York’s Ethical Culture School, Paul Strand took a photography class taught by social documentarian Lewis Hine, whose progressive outlook influenced the young artist. That year Strand also visited Alfred Stieglitz’s innovative gallery, 291, where he encountered Pictorialism, an international movement that stressed the handcrafted nature and aesthetic qualities of photography. He later recalled, “I walked out of that place that day feeling, This is what I want to do, this is what I would like to do in my life.”

Strand spent the next few years mastering photographic printing and the principles of Pictorialism while absorbing various modern art movements from Europe, including Cubism. Synthesizing these experiences, he moved away from Pictorialism in 1915 and began to experiment with abstraction and anonymous street portraiture as a way to capture the dynamism of the city. These images helped establish photography’s significance as a modern art form and made an impact on an entire generation of photographers.

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The Film Manhatta

In 1920 Strand collaborated with artist Charles Sheeler on a short film, Manhatta, which traces a day in New York. Often hailed as the first avant-garde film, it conjures the excitement of modern urban life through abstracted city views—including a reconstruction of his early masterpiece Wall Street—and features intertitles from Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems by Walt Whitman that was first published in 1855. Manhatta screened for a week in New York during the summer of 1921 and was shown in avant-garde festivals thereafter.

For the next ten years, Strand earned a living as a commercial cinematographer while continuing his exploration of photography’s artistic potential. He filmed sports events, college graduation ceremonies, action scenes in slapstick films, short newsreels, and a burlesque performance, among other commissions.


 


Portraits and Nature Studies
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Portraits and Nature Studies

In 1919 Strand acquired a tool that would radically change his photography: an 8 x 10–inch view camera. Contact prints that he made from its large negatives were of astonishing clarity and detail. The following year Strand fell in love with Rebecca Salsbury, and two years later he purchased an Akeley, a movie camera designed to capture wildlife. With his view camera, he carefully photographed both Rebecca and his Akeley close up, poring over every curve and shadow. The resulting pictures resonate with artworks by friends and fellow modernists Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley.

In 1927 and 1928 Paul and Rebecca (now his wife) went to coastal Maine, where they visited sculptor Gaston Lachaise and his wife, Isabel. During this trip, Strand used his view camera to study driftwood, rocks, plants, and forests. Employing only natural light, he exposed his negatives for many minutes, letting all the nuances of his subject slowly take shape. Strand came to value how these meditative works revealed the unique traits of a locale, a quality that would become increasingly important to him in the coming years.

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The American Southwest and Mexico
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The American Southwest and Mexico

Strand began to explore the potential of photographic series on trips to Canada’s Gaspé Peninsula and the American Southwest in the late 1920s and early 1930s. An avid traveler, he painstakingly examined the camera’s power to record details of time and place on these journeys. At the end of 1932 he relocated to Mexico, where he stayed for two years. Strand photographed extensively in rural areas and created a significant body of work—portraits, studies of architecture and religious statues, and landscapes—that built upon themes developed over the previous years.

Between 1934 and 1942 Strand focused on filmmaking. In 1934 he filmed Redes (The Wave), a story of fishermen on strike. After returning to the United States in 1935, Strand cofounded Frontier Films and directed and shot documentaries—including Native Land (1942)—that address the rise of fascism and threats to civil liberties. During World War II he returned to still photography, eventually relocating to France in 1950 in response to a repressive political climate in the US.

See what else Strand photographed in the Southwest and Mexico >>


 


New England, Luzzara, and Ghana
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New England, Luzzara, and Ghana

In the last three decades of his life, Strand pursued extended photography projects around the world, exploring how the past and present shape a town, a region, or an entire country. Interested in showing these pictures in sequence and in combination with words, he developed the idea of publishing them as a photo book. This format, which allowed him to consider a subject in-depth and pair his photographs with text from an author or editor, became the most important type of presentation for his pictures from 1950 onward.

Three significant examples of Strand’s book projects include: Time in New England (1950), which compiles landscapes, portraits, and other views with writings from throughout the region’s history; Un paese [A Village] (1953), a presentation of the daily life of the townspeople of Luzzara, Italy, and their places of work and leisure; and Ghana: An African Portrait (1976), a look at a young, democratic nation. Each of these series shows Strand’s remarkable ability to adapt to his subjects and surroundings and represent them in an empathetic, often revelatory manner.

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More Travels and Orgeval Garden
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More Travels and Orgeval Garden

In addition to his books on New England, Luzzara, and Ghana, Strand pursued extended projects in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands, France, Egypt, Morocco, and Romania. For these travels, he was accompanied by his third wife, photographer Hazel Kingsbury Strand. A meticulous researcher, planner, and record keeper, she was instrumental in every stage of the work. Her buoyant personality offset Paul’s reserved nature and helped secure the cooperation of many portrait subjects, some of whom she also photographed.

In 1955 the Strands purchased a home in Orgeval, France, about forty-five minutes outside Paris. Paul’s first house other than the one where he had grown up, it also included his first personal darkroom. They frequently entertained houseguests, including their many project collaborators, and Hazel established an extensive garden. For nearly twenty years, Strand photographed her garden, creating a remarkable suite of images. A personal counterpoint to his travel projects, these pictures continue Strand’s exploration of nature but uniquely dwell upon the pleasures of domesticity. The Strands resided in Orgeval until Paul’s death in 1976.

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The Paul Strand Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Paul Strand had a long and prolific career in which he took thousands of photographs over the course of six decades. The Paul Strand Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art comprises prints from a majority of his negatives, including variants and croppings of individual images, making the Museum the world’s largest and most comprehensive repository of Strand’s work.

Discover more pictures from this one-of-a-kind collection >>


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