Politics and Artistic Expression: Paul Strand | Anne McCauley | Sunday, 08.02.2015

Reading Strand’s New York Photographs: City Hall Park

In my last post, I suggested that we should rethink how we might read “politics” into the works of Paul Strand. I put “politics” advisedly into quotes, because few photographs can translate specific political tenets or party lines into form. Apart from a unique photograph called “Skeleton and Swastika, Connecticut” contrived in 1938-39, Strand was no John Heartfield and never directly attacked scowling financiers or aggrandized noble workers in the fields in his still photographs. He remained above all an artist with a distinct social point of view, who recognized that the power to shift the public’s attention by forcing it to visually engage with the overlooked was his greatest gift.
Paul Strand: City Hall Park, New York, 1915Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Paul Strand Retrospective Collection, gift of the artist, 1972-147-1
I would like to start with City Hall Park, New York, 1915, a platinum print that Strand (and Stieglitz) valued enough to include in Strand’s first show at 291 in 1916. Strand’s earliest photographic forays into the city (variously dated from 1912-14) had been in Central Park, near his home on W. 83rd St., where he mounted hills and overpasses to record women and children, equestriennes, and snow scenes. In contrast to these horizontal prints that give us no clues that we are actually in a huge city, City Hall Park in title and contents proclaims its location in the heart of New York’s business district, while keeping the short exposure and elevated perspective of the Central Park views. A cropped, vertical swathe isolates striding, solitary businessmen, a quartet of fashionable women, a couple stopping briefly to talk, and other silhouetted figures largely made anonymous through lack of detail and interior modeling. Moving rapidly in diverse directions, the mid-step pedestrians ignore the tightly contained trees and grass that Strand pushes to the edges of the print.
What we don’t see in this picture is as important as what we do see. City Hall Park, a seventeenth-century commons on which New York’s third, celebrated City Hall was built between 1803 and 1812, had suffered numerous incursions, such as the U.S. Post Office added to its base in the 1870s; the Tweed County and city courthouses lining Chambers Street; a quatrefoil fountain; and a statue of Nathan Hale. In fact, there were plans in 1910 to construct a much larger courthouse along Chambers Street, which inspired the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society to launch a powerful and successful attack against this further reduction of green space that would overshadow the beautiful City Hall, add congestion, and undermine the site’s historic importance.
The death of City Hall Park’s functioning as a park was further hastened by rampant construction on private property along its periphery and the opening of subway lines. Newspaper or Park Row, whose heyday was in the 1890s, housed all the major dailies in buildings that rivaled one another in grandiosity and height down the east side of the park. Directly behind City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse was the new, forty-story McKim, Mead and White municipal records building, just completed in 1914. Despite its ornate, neo-Renaissance facade, the Municipal Building could not challenge the jagged spires of the Woolworth Building at the other end of the Park, towering over the Post Office at 60 stories and 792 feet and opened in 1913. The convergence of major public transportation routes – the IRT subway line, opened in 1904 with City Hall Park as its terminus and on which Strand would have come from his home on the West Side; above-ground connections to Brooklyn through the Park Row Terminal; and the new Chambers Street station under the Municipal Building, made City Hall Park a transit hub with tens of thousands commuters passing through each day.
Strand had to work hard to exclude all of these architectural monuments from his frame, to such an extent that it is extremely difficult to figure out at what elevated position he is standing (he later said he was in a courthouse, without specifying which one). What he presents is the antithesis of sharply focused, contemporary tourist views featured on postcards and travel guides, which center on City Hall dwarfed by its soaring, ultra-modernist neighbors.
View of the Municipal Building near the time of its completion in 1914; City Hall is on the right, and the courthouse is on the left.
Instead, Strand includes the interstices between things, what might be characterized as heterotopias normally walked through or unseen whose meanings are as fluid as their temporary inhabitants.
Why did he take this picture? In 1951 he told his friend Walter Rosenblum that “he was trying to photograph the rushing to work … physical movement expressed by the abstract spotting of people and shapes.” That always struck me as a strange response: he could have presumably captured the “rushing to work” anywhere in Manhattan and, if he were after physical movement in the streets, he could have walked a few blocks to teeming immigrant strongholds on Hester, Mulberry and Canal Streets nearer to where he shot his street “portraits” the next year. He didn’t want to show the “rushing to work” of the poor; he was after something else.
Stephen Crane, whom Strand could never have known but whose work he may have read, in 1894 published a short story, “An Experiment in Misery,” in which a bum and an unemployed young man of greater cultivation and sensitivity meet in City Hall Park and try to figure out where they might find a flophouse for the night. Crane voices the young man’s perception of a successful life that had escaped him: “The people of the street hurrying hither and thither made a blend of black figures changing yet frieze-like. They walked in their good clothes as upon important missions, giving no gaze to the two wanderers seated upon the benches. … And in the background a multitude of buildings, of pitiless hues and sternly high, were to him emblematic of a nation forcing its regal head into the clouds, throwing no downward glances … The roar of the city in his ear was to him the confusion of strange tongues, babbling heedlessly; it was the clink of coin, the voice of the city’s hopes which were to him no hopes.”
Crane’s introduction of City Hall Park as a symbol of an unfeeling money economy anticipated the anxiety that many young men of Strand’s generation felt about the psychological pressures of New York life. Responding to the same real-life experiences of international urban growth that led Georg Simmel in 1903 to draft his now-famous lecture on “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” Waldo Frank, who probably met Strand around 1916 when he became the associate editor of Seven Arts magazine, described the speed-up of New York in his first novel, The Unwelcome Man. Published in 1917, the novel sets the city against the rural calm of its young protagonist’s hometown: “The hammering monotony of huge buildings that were neither beautiful to look upon nor useful to be dwelt in—monuments of vanity and folly, hideous with stolen decoration no one understood … built with money that was needed—sorely needed—elsewhere; … And the mad misery of the dwellers!—proud to be smothered in the biggest subway, proud to be cheated in the biggest stores, proud to be lied to by the biggest journals, proud to be sheep in the biggest pen!” Two years later, in Our America, Frank recycled this picture of the effects of the “fierce beat of material affairs” on New Yorkers, “sucked void,” “a weary people,” “caught in a Machine,” with stretched nerves, a thick, inert coagulation pouring into subways, weary and dulled to the sights around them.
Strand, of course, in no way approaches Frank’s overwrought prose. His subject is not the human element met directly, but its reduction to a pattern in a structured space. And that, in fact, is the key to the message. By stepping back, Strand surveys the ceaseless bustle of the business class, never stopping to enjoy the present, caught in the commercial flow of metropolitan life. City Hall Park, as a transit hub, becomes a non-park, no longer doing what Progressive Era urban planners such as Jacob Riis intended parks to do.
Much later, in his film Native Land (1942), Strand returned to New York parks to record scenes of happy children roller skating and speeding down slides, men playing bocce, and couples picnicking, as narrator Paul Robeson intones, “millions of people in the public parks.”
Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz, Scene from Native Land, 1942 (filmstill)
Parks for Strand and Leo Hurwitz in the 1930s were part of what democratic governments owed citizens of all ages, now revealed in close tracking shots as individuals actually playing and amusing themselves on the grass. In contrast, the positioning of Strand’s camera in 1915 encodes an uneasy distancing, a failure to identify with his subjects, a kind of criticality approaching the sociological. How this approach to pedestrian motion aligns with leftist arguments against urban crowding and real estate speculation, which contributed to the passage of America’s first zoning law in 1916, is a topic I want to explore in the next blog.