Wall Street, 1915


Paul Strand (October 16, 1890 - March 31, 1976) was an American photographer and filmmaker who, along with fellow Modernist   photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, helped establish photography as an art form in the 20th century. His diverse body of work, spanning six decades, covers numerous genres and subjects throughout the Americas, Europe and Africa.

Early Modernism                       

Born in New York City to Bohemian parents, Strand was a student of renowned documentary photographer Lewis Hine at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in his late teens. It was while on a fieldtrip in this class that Strand first visited the 291 art gallery Ė operated by Stieglitz and Edward Steichen Ė where exhibitions of work by forward-thinking Modernist photographers and painters would convince Strand to take his photographic hobby more seriously. Stieglitz would later promote Strand's work both in the 291 itself and in his photography publication Camera Work. Some of this early work experimented with formal abstractions, while other works showed his interest in using the camera as a tool for social reform (no doubt inspired by Hine).


The next few decades saw Strand get into motion pictures as well as still photography. His first film project was Manhatta, (also known as New York the Magnificent) a silent film showing the day-to-day life of New York City made with painter/photographer Charles Sheeler. Other films he was involved with included Redes, (released in the United States as The Wave) a film commissioned by the Mexican government in 1936 and the pro-union, anti-facist, Native Land released in 1942. Strand was closely involved with Frontier Films, one of more than twenty organizations that were branded as Ďsubversiveí and Ďun-Americaní by the US Attorney General.

Exile from McCarthyism

In June 1949 Strand left the United States to present Native Land at the International Film Festival in Marianske Lazne, Czechoslovakia. It was a departure that marked the beginning of Strandís long exile from the prevailing climate of McCarthyism. Strandís unwavering allegiance to Communism, fostered by his time in revolutionary Mexico, made his continuing residency in the United States untenable. The remaining twenty seven years of his life were spent in France where, despite never learning the language, he maintained an impressive creative life, assisted by his second wife, the photographer Hazel Kingsbury Strand.

Although Strand is best known for his early abstractions, his return to still photography in this period of exile produced some of his most significant work in the form of six book Ďportraitsí of place: Time in New England (1950), La France de Profil (1952), Un Paese (featuring photographs of the Po River Valley in Italy, 1955), Tir a'Mhurain / Outer Hebrides (1962), Living Egypt (1969) and Ghana: an African portrait (1976). The geography of Strandís work is itself important. The historian of art Mike Weaver, has made the case that each of these books, in different ways, reflects Strandís abiding commitment to the exploration of Marxist aesthetic.

Strandís Politics

Whether or not he carried a Party card, Paul Strand was clearly embedded in Communist networks in both America and Europe. The timing of Strandís departure is coincident with the first libel trial of his friend Alger Hiss, with whom he maintained a close correspondence until his death. In Europe, many of Strandís collaborators were either Party members (James Aldridge; Cesare Zavatinni) or were prominent socialist writers and activists (Basil Davidson). Many of his close friends were also well-known Communists (the lawyer D. N. Pritt; the film director Joseph Losey; the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid; the actor Alex McCrindle).

Strand also insisted that his books should be printed in Leipzig, East Germany, even if this meant that they were initially prohibited from the American market on account of their Communist provenance. De-classified intelligence files, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and now lodged at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, reveal that Strandís movements around Europe were closely monitored by the security services. Recent scholarship has drawn attention to the timing of Strandís visit to South Uist in Scotlandís Outer Hebrides in 1954, at precisely the moment when the island became a new frontier in the Cold War as the test site for America and Britainís first guided nuclear weapon, the Corporal missile.

Strandís interest in rural forms of sociality, unusual for a Marxist, was a means by which he explored universal themes about the meaning of community. Local forms of solidarity and communal life were, for Strand, a powerful symbol of resistance against those forces of militarism and capitalism that he opposed.

Paul Strand's estate is managed by Aperture Foundation, New York.


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