Politics and Artistic Expression: Paul Strand | Anne McCauley | Tuesday, 10.03.2015

Beyond Paul Strand: What Can Radical Photography Be?

I started this blog by posing some questions about the arbitrariness of dividing Paul Strand’s career into a late period of political subject matter and activism and an early period that seemed devoted primarily to formal concerns. Certainly, this is something of a straw man, because most of us would agree that the visual arts are inherently about shaping matter, with all its inherent recalcitrance, into form, regardless of the desired or received “meaning” of that shaped form. The other problem is, of course, what we intend by the terms, “political subjects” or “political art.” The gathering together of any people into a governing unit begins to constitute the body politic, so that virtually all social life in some sense can be read as “political.” However, historically we distinguish “political art”—art that is intentionally made to express a political party line or promote a particular government or policy position—from art that can be read as confirming a location within conflicting ideologies (which may cut across formal party platforms or regimes). This latter sense of art as functioning politically and representing certain values that can be decoded has driven much of the social history of art in the past fifty years and is what I was striving to uncover in Strand’s enigmatic urban views.
Mating politics with art and applying terms like “conservative” or “radical” to subject matter or style has become an accepted practice in our attempts to dismiss as pernicious and retardataire, or to extoll as avant-garde, works from the past. I would like now to turn from Paul Strand, who has been redeemed as a politically “good guy” thanks to his resistance to McCarthyism, in order to highlight some of the historiographical problems with what is all too often an imposition of present-day values onto past cultures: “positive” depictions of women, homosexual, working-class, and non-Western subjects are good and thus liberal and enlightened; rejections of the dominant style being purchased by capitalist elites is radical and modernist; artists affiliated with left-wing political groups are embraced as progressive, etc. For some time now I have been working on the subject of Clarence White and pictorialism (I am preparing an exhibition on White for the Princeton University Art Museum).
Nothing could probably better embody a style that is at once out of favor and dismissed as irredeemably retro and conservative as pictorialism. For decades, when I taught this material, I relied on (and relished) Ulrich Keller’s paired essays in History of Photography from 1984-85, which put the Photo-Secession in its place. Keller took on the great God Stieglitz and argued that what he termed “Art Photography” (with caps) was elitist (a term Keller repeats dozens of times) in its institutional formation and practitioners; unoriginal and derivative of both traditional fine arts and even popular photojournalism in its choices and presentations of motifs; and in no way continuous with the “straight modernist photography” that jolted viewers in the 1920s (embodied in Moholy-Nagy, whose dismissal of Stieglitz’s work as “misunderstood photography” Keller quotes). Writing at a moment when it was fashionable for critics on the left (at least left of the Democrats) to attack the artificial elevation of photography to a commodified art form and the stuffiness and corporate interests of museums, Keller pits avant-garde, German (Communist, Jewish, Bauhaus), medium-specific modernism against elite, snobby, self-promoting, artist-geniuses (at once Stieglitz and curator Weston Naef, whose move from the Metropolitan Museum to the Getty in 1984 linked two powerhouses of canonized art photography).
Killing the father figure is always fun, but Keller’s insistent linkage of fuzzy pictures, romanticized subject matter, and elite camera clubs with all that he disliked in the gilded age of Reagan represents a major misreading of the actual political beliefs and aspirations of many (not all) members of Pictorialist groups. As I have grown to appreciate during years of researching the careers of these photographers and their social networks, they were not the complacent bankers and stylish aristocrats that Keller paints. Yes, a few of them had professional day jobs, but their politics were more likely to be socialist or anarchist than within the American Democratic Party as it existed in 1900. Melinda Parsons in 1983 launched a much-needed discussion of Edward Steichen’s deep roots in socialist Minneapolis in the 1890s (his family remained staunch supporters and friends of Victor Berger, a leader of the American Social Democratic Party for which Steichen’s sister Lilian and brother-in-law Carl Sandburg worked). In France, many of Steichen’s sitters self-identified as socialists: Auguste Rodin (embraced as a champion of the working man), Anatole France, Maurice Maeterlinck, to say nothing of George Bernard Shaw (himself an art photographer). Steichen’s visit to Stuttgart to photograph the International Socialist Congress in 1907 (where he recorded August Bebel and Jean Jaurès for a book by the American Socialist Party activist Robert Hunter) is just one sign of his ongoing connections with international socialist movements.
Clarence White continues this affiliation, from his early years in Ohio until his death. Already sympathetic in the 1890s (a decade of labor unrest and economic depression that saw the founding of Berger’s Social Democratic Party of America), White became friends with (and an active photographic recorder of) Indiana socialist Stephen Reynolds
Clarence H. White, Stephen Reynolds, ca. 1905, platinum print © The Clarence H. White Collection, assembled and organized by Professor Clarence H. White Jr., and given in memory of Lewis F. White, Dr. Maynard P. White Sr., and Clarence H. White Jr., the sons of Clarence H. White Sr. and Jane Felix White
and, through him, Eugene Debs (whose portrait he took). Once he moves to New York, his friends expanded to include Socialist activist Rose Pastor Stokes and her husband Graham Phelps Stokes (whose sister was married to Hunter), Horace Traubel (Whitmanian, socialist, free-love advocate, and frequent contributor to Camera Work), and an array of suffragists, environmentalists, and followers of Whitman, Edward Carpenter, and William Morris.
The Arts and Crafts movement is, of course, the overriding link between socialism (whether in the form of Morris’s Socialist League or the Fabian Society) and the striving to make photography a medium of aesthetic expression widely available to amateur practitioners. Both in terms of style (the hand-made, the beautiful and ideal form, the transformation of everyday objects into harmonious compositions, the rejection of glossy, mass-produced commercial prints) and content (the domestic interior filled with loving mothers and freely playing children, the celebration of natural nudity and pre-industrial simple living), Pictorialist photographs reflect the ideals of Arts and Crafts. This is not news, but what seems to have been forgotten (and certainly Keller ignores it) is that the adherents of this movement were motivated to change the mode of production to change society. Prior to World War I, Pictorialism was the new style (like Jugendstil or Art nouveau), and it was seen as part of a utopian attempt to remake American, materialistic society into something more transcendent, spiritual, communal, and authentic.
My point here (which could be elaborated by many more examples) is merely to emphasize how difficult it is to judge past styles that started out as ruptures embraced by the young and then over the course of time became assimilated into popular culture to the point of appearing as kitsch (Impressionist painting has made this move in my lifetime). I still find it difficult to look at Pictorialist prints (except for the few that deal with urban subjects, which we are prejudiced to read as more “modern” since we dismiss the agrarian as old-fashioned) without thinking of 1950s Christmas cards and children’s book illustrations of my youth. But perhaps if we can start to think of a future society that looks more like Vermont off-the-grid, locavore farms and less like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, we might be able to understand that progressive politics and progressive art don’t necessarily have to lead to the Machine Age. The Pictorialists’ hazy, glittering world of indolent women and peaceful landscapes offered fin de siècle anti-capitalists a model that we beleaguered twitter followers and Apple updaters might want to reconsider.