Politics and Artistic Expression: Paul Strand | Anne McCauley | Donnerstag, 26.02.2015

Rear Windows: Strand’s Backyards

In 1916, the same year that Paul Strand made his remarkable studies of lower-class types caught unawares by a disguised camera lens, he moved away from New York’s crowded streets to capture backyards visible from a bird’s-eye perspective.
Paul Strand, New York, 1916, Vintage photogravure from Camera Work 48, 1916
We don’t know if he had seen Alfred Stieglitz’s 1915 views of snow-covered rooftops taken from the rear window of the 291 gallery.
Alfred Stieglitz, From the Back Window "291", 1915, © Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.710
Strand had only gotten to know the eminent photographer that year, and Stieglitz would not publicly exhibit his series until 1921. Certainly Stieglitz saw an echo of his own diagonal pile-up of irregular rooflines and chimneys in Strand’s more close-up and simplified crisscross of snow-topped dividing walls, because he reproduced it in October in Camera Work.
Stieglitz’s psychological involvement with what he could see from the one available window off the back storeroom of his cramped gallery intensified in 1916 and 1917, as he testified in his letters. In October 1916 he called it “My New York Lake!,” likening the window’s view to the solace and harmony with natural rhythms that he found each fall at Lake George: “If it had not been for the window I would have been dead long ago—It always helped me out when I was extremely miserable,” he confessed. A leafless tree blanketed in wet snow, a pattern of lit windows in adjacent buildings suggesting human habitation, ghostly ads for dressmakers and perfumeries, and in 1917 the steel girders of a new high-rise that would eventually block his view south toward 30th Street—all were signs of life and growth that Stieglitz experienced visually, but not tactilely. Shifting his camera north and south out his east-facing window, Stieglitz kept shooting in changing climate and lighting conditions, elevating the unattractive underbelly of urban architecture into projections of his tumultuous feelings of isolation, melancholy, and desire for unity with forces outside his control.
Strand was certainly much less invested in the diaristic chronicling of a self held in geographical suspension, but he returned to a different rear window in 1917 in a print he titled Geometric Backyards, New York.
Paul Strand, Geometric Backyards, New York, 1917, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987 © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive
Instead of shrouded in snow, this fragment of two adjacent backyards reveals bright late autumn or early spring sun drying sheets and white linen pinned on diagonal clotheslines. True to its title, the photograph foregrounds swathes of flattened sidewalks and foreshortened wooden fences that slash from lower left to upper right, radically rejecting the perspectival recession into the New York skyline that marks Stieglitz’s images. Even more forcefully than in the Strand street scenes that I previously discussed, this picture looks like a study in abstract form.
But, again, I want to press the obvious reading by considering why this particular subject became the locus of pictorial investigation, not only for Strand and Stieglitz, but in fact for many photographers during the 1910s (Steichen, Schamberg, Struss, Man Ray, and many Clarence White School students). Already identified by Ashcan School painters such as John French Sloan as private, feminized spaces of sociability where one could catch glimpses of women literally airing their linen in public (seen here in Sloan’s A Woman’s Work, 1912, Cleveland Art Museum), the areas behind buildings were highly contested.
John Sloan, A Woman’s Work, 1912, oil on canvas, Cleveland Art Museum, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
For defenders of the rights of every citizen to have air, light, and places for recreation, older backyards represented unregulated plots controlled by tenement owners that often had become fetid garbage and sewage dumps, forcing immigrant families to string their laundry across buildings and play in the streets (think of Jacob Riis’s 1890s prints). Sloan’s romanticizations of sexually available, working class girls carousing on rooftops as their laundry dried or grooming behind windows opposite his apartment idealize an involuntary communal life that paternalistic urban reformers saw as a problem.
The solution was not only to tear down crowded tenements, but also to redesign backyards with neat concrete sidewalks and contained clotheslines at ground level. Photographs in a New York Times article from 1912 contrast “improved workingpeople’s dwellings in Wilmington, Del., showing how backyards may be made attractive” on the left with the “alleyway in a Chicago slum” seen in the right image:
“War on City Slums Is Now Practically Nation Wide,” in: New York Times, August 4, 1912
In Manhattan, however, the construction of such lower density, working-class housing ran up against the exorbitant price of land. Thus, the neatly partitioned parcels in Strand’s photograph were more likely behind new, lower profile buildings with fewer inhabitants that were constructed for upper-middle-class residents north of midtown.
This hygienic style of backyard recalls that in another Sloan painting, Spring Planting, Greenwich Village, 1913, in which a smiling group of well-dressed girls (liberated midinettes rather than sisters) prepare a vegetable garden adjacent to the flapping laundry of neighbors less entitled to their own plots of land.
John Sloan, Spring Planting Greenwich Village, 1913, oil on canvas, Columbus Museum of Art
Sloan’s consistent focus on narrative details and eye-level perspective radically differ from Strand’s vertiginous plunge into an unpeopled, flattened space, but even Strand admits metonymic signs of habitation and contingency: the syncopated rhythm of bleached sheets and limp shirts, frail, denuded tree, piles of debris in the corners, and turned earth. If we sense Sloan’s puppy-dog flirtation with these healthy babes (is that radical bobbed hair on the right?), we intuit Strand’s characteristic emotional repression and intellection.
Strand’s selection of the private space of these backyards has to be seen in dialogue with what I have argued are his anxieties about overcrowding on the street. Real estate speculation and the replacement of private brownstones (and tenements) with high-cost French flats or office buildings meant that fewer and fewer people had any access to their own backyards. Newer, high-rise apartment buildings, in which a family lived horizontally on a single floor with amenities such as steam heat, elevators, and central laundries, were marketed to the wealthy and comfortable (much like current New York development), but were zoned with external, communal park areas. The backyard and even the public clotheslines became, for leftists like the writers for The Masses, symbols of working class culture and lively, individual expression that were disappearing from a more corporate (and hidden from view) lifestyle, as we can see in this illustration after America’s entry into World War I celebrating “back-yard flags” as opposed to the boosterish, American flags lining Fifth Avenue.
"Back-Yard Flags", in: The Masses, v. 10, Nov.-Dec. 1917
Strand was no fan of what New York was becoming during the war years: increasingly dominated by “the money power,” as described by a writer in The Freeman (a magazine to which Strand contributed in 1921-22). In a letter to Stieglitz from Colorado in 1926, he complained: “For as one travels away from New York one is always finding potentially—New York—its deadness and cheapness—standardized mediocrity—in towns and towns trying to be cities.” Rather than focusing directly on the sites of that mediocrity and cheapness – the “Great White Way,” the overly ornate skyscrapers, the shop fronts at street level, Strand escapes to this humble symbol of women’s domestic work—a single, outstretched sheet with a welcoming pliability, a visual safety net against the rigid plank walls that define the limits of one family’s terrain. The key to this particular “geometric backyard” lies in its quiet resistance to the uniformity of the grid and the blinkered thinking that it engenders.