Politics and Artistic Expression: Paul Strand | Anne McCauley | Sonntag, 01.02.2015

The Problematic Politics of Paul Strand

The recent retrospective exhibition of Paul Strand’s photographs, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to celebrate its purchase of more than 3000 prints and lantern slides from the Paul Strand Archive at the Aperture Foundation and coming to the Fotomuseum Winterthur in March, provides an ideal moment to think about Strand’s contribution and how he has been fashioned as a master of “modernist” photography (if not the slippery status of not-for-profit institutions that sell donated works to raise funds, perhaps the subject of another blog). More particularly, my interest derives from the ongoing debates about Strand’s politics and its importance to his work. At the heart of these debates, I would argue, are critical assumptions not only about what “political photography” looks like, but about how we have defined the winners and losers in our efforts to write a history of avant-garde, twentieth-century photography.
Readers of this blog undoubtedly know the received wisdom about the trajectory of Strand’s career. The son of Jewish immigrants who made good in retail trade (like Alfred Stieglitz, only Bohemian rather than German and less financially well-heeled), Strand enters the Ethical Culture School at fourteen and moves from Hine student and amateur photographer to Stieglitz’s protégé and exemplary modernist by 1915. After a traumatic stint as a conscientious objector during the war and the death of his mother, he juggles earning a living as a commercial filmmaker and advertising photographer with advancing his artistic career, still largely in the orbit of Stieglitz in the 1920s. The thirties see him taking stances as an activist, traveling to Mexico where he makes a film documenting capitalists’ oppression of local fishermen (Redes, 1934-1936), working with the Group Theatre and founding Frontier Films, visiting Moscow to meet with Eisenstein, and repeatedly signing petitions against militarism and growing fascism in Europe. Although the smoking gun of a FOIA file documenting Strand’s membership in the American Communist Party has never been found, there is ample evidence that his sympathies even through the Stalinist purges remained staunchly with those of the Party, as he understood it in 1930s America. His flight from the U.S. to France in 1950 cinches the case for Paul Strand as a victim of the McCarthy era, a good guy who stood up for artistic and political freedoms.
This account of Paul Strand’s two faces—one concerned with the legacy of Cubism and personal experimentation and another with the political and public—is of course a simplification, but one encouraged by efforts such as the Metropolitan Museum’s 1998 show, Paul Strand: Ca. 1916, which bracketed works around that year for consideration as innovative formal creations. The retrieval in the 1980s of Strand’s leftist political ties during the Great Depression helped to salvage him as an avant-gardist at a time when the sort of humanitarian and view-camera contact prints that dominated his later work went out of fashion, as conceptualism and identity politics came to define what radical photography looked like.
We have forgotten, by and large, that this split between early and late work was not the way Strand was portrayed during his lifetime. Nancy Newhall, who was a good friend, in her 1945 MOMA catalogue for his mid-career retrospective asserted that, “seen as a whole, his work has remarkable unity.” Skirting over his films in a single paragraph, she extolls the beauty, subtle chiaroscuro, new vision, and craftsmanship of Strand’s prints, with a glancing reference to the “pressures that were mounting into World War II” that “impelled him… to devote all his energies to awakening in the public an awareness of threatening dangers.”
Newhall was within the norms of mid-century, art historical writing in a museum context that still needed to justify photography as an art form, but she was also downplaying Strand’s leftism at a time when the tide was starting to turn against Roosevelt’s New Deal policies (the president died twelve days before Strand’s show opened) and the 79th Congress elevated the House Committee on Un-American Activities to a standing committee. Newhall’s conviction that Strand’s work was of a piece in its fundamental approaches to framing, posing, and lighting subjects rings true when one views the Philadelphia show, but her erasure of his commitment to anti-fascism, pacifism, and working-class solidarity flattens his oeuvre to the vaguely humanitarian, Disneyland “it’s-a-small-world-after-all” platitudes that have similarly (and equally unjustly) infected pomo condemnations of the Family of Man.
Turning on its head Newhall’s portrait of Strand as formally consistent but politically silent, I am in the process of trying to rethink many of the early photographs that Strand, in a retrospective effort to establish his modernist bona fides, described as exercises in the application of “strange abstract principles to photography in order to understand them” (as he told Helmut Gernsheim). This is not to deny that Strand was concerned with two- and three-dimensional composition in his early work, but to reassert that the interest in the overtly “political” that seems obvious in films like Redes and Native Land is fundamental even to his seemingly random snapshots of New York parks and street scenes during World War I. I have in mind prints like Strand’s City Hall Park (1915), Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street (1915), and Geometric Backyards (1917), pictures whose lack of clear subject and distanced, high vantage point give them a psychological remove that is quite different from his equally voyeuristic, but closer, figure studies, such as Blind Woman, New York (1916).
Paul StrandBlind Woman, New York, 1916Gelatin-silver print, 32.4 × 24.8 cmPhiladelphia Museum of Art, The Paul Strand Collection© Estate of Paul Strand
Whereas it is commonplace to classify as social documents Strand’s secretive captures of street characters made by shooting under his arm while aiming a fake lens straight ahead, his other New York cityscapes don’t fit our image of what a politically engaged photographer would record. Superficially, Strand’s portraits (and it is important that he often dubbed them portraits, even though he never got his sitters’ names, because it tells us that his interests were beyond the anthropological) resemble a few of Lewis Hine’s Ellis Island, bust-length photographs of newly arrived immigrants shot inside in natural, overhead light. Nonetheless, they are radically different in their mode of production, lack of posing, minimized halftones, and extreme contrast. The point is that biographical facts urge us to want to see Strand mirroring Hine’s agenda, even though there is no external evidence to support this and little in the way of visual similarity.
In1951 Strand confessed to Walter Rosenblum that what drove him as a photographic flâneur wandering around Manhattan during the War was “a desire to express certain feelings I had about New York where I lived.” In the next few blogs, I want to consider how far we can go in probing Strand’s “feelings about New York” from a close reading of a few of his early urban views. What does it mean that Strand gave up photographing New York long before he gave up on America? Can there be a politics of place, and a politics of space?