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Paul Strand

Portrait of Paul Strand at Orgeval
Portrait of Paul Strand at Orgeval, 1972
Martine Franck, Belgian
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Having come of age in the New York photography scene spearheaded by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand explored the modernist possibilities of the camera more fully than any other artist before 1920. He mastered the prevailing Pictorialist aesthetic in his early twenties, and then between 1915 and 1917 produced images that variously explored abstraction, the modern American landscape, and close-up portraits of anonymous urban subjects. These pictures helped establish photography’s significance as a modern art form, and they influenced an entire generation of photographers.

Soon after these experiments, Strand embraced filmmaking, collaborating with American painter Charles Sheeler to make Manhatta (1921), often hailed as the first avant-garde film. He also embarked on an investigation of the large-format camera’s optical power in portraits and studies of machines and natural forms. Perhaps influenced by his film work, Strand began to explore the potential of photographic series on trips to the American Southwest and Canada’s Gaspé Peninsula in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1932 he relocated to Mexico, where he advanced his efforts to create photographic series and at the same time began to contemplate the political purposes of film and photography, as seen in his second major film, Redes (released in the United States as The Wave) (1936).

Returning to the United States in 1935, Strand became a founder of Frontier Films in 1936, and over the next six years directed and shot documentaries—including the film masterpiece Native Land (1942)—that addressed the rise of fascism around the globe and threats to civil liberties in the United States. In the midst of World War II, he returned to still photography, eventually relocating to France in 1950 in response to a political climate that had become increasingly hostile to the American Left.

In the last three decades of his life, Strand pursued extended projects in New England, France, Italy, the Hebrides (off the coast of Scotland), Egypt, Morocco, Ghana, and Romania, exploring the particular ways that history and modernity blended in each. Strand conceived these projects as books, which became the most important form of presentation for his work from 1950 onward. During these years, he also made a remarkable suite of photographs within the confines of his garden in Orgeval, France, a personal counterpoint to his travel projects.