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Paul Strand: A Retrospective Monograph, The Years 1915-1946 (Book Review)

Paul Strand: A Retrospective Monograph, The Years 1915-1946

Paul Strand (1990-1976) was an American modernist photographer with a career spanning well over half a century. His work included the first intentionally made abstraction photographs, the first photograph of a part of a mechanical device as a purely aesthetic image, landscapes, architecture and candid portraits of everyday people. One of the most fascinating things about Strand is also the influence of artists like Picasso and C├ęzanne on what he was trying to achieve with his camera.

Reading Paul Strand: a Retrospective Monograph, the Years 1915-1946, published in 1971 as a hardcover, is something like dipping your big toe into a warm pool and then slowly submersing yourself further on every read through its pages. On first browse there appeared to be less to these images than I had imagined. However, Strand’s photography is deceptively simple, something very difficult to achieve. And it’s important to realise that these photographs were experiments and excursions in a two-dimensional visual world unlike our modern image-intensive iPhone enabled contemporary society. In that sense, it’s important to slow down and appreciate the black and white photographs for what they were in their context of time and space. In one sense, they are aesthetically beautiful images in their own right. In another, they represent the expression and evolution of artistic ideas.

Alfred Stieglitz thought enough of Paul Strand to include him in his Camera Work magazine in 1917 and exhibited Strand at 291, formerly known as Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, located on Fifth Avenue in New York. Stieglitz wrote:

New picture makers happen every day, not only in photography but also painting. New picture makers are notoriously nothing but imitators of the accepted: the best of them imitators of, possibly at one time, original workers… [Strand’s] work is pure. It is direct. It does not rely on tricks of process.Alfred Stieglitz

This retrospective of Strand’s work from 1915- 1946 covers only half of his career as a photographer. However, from abstractions to portraits to landscapes there is a strong sense of discoverability within his photographs that compelled me read and re-read this book a half dozen times in succession. Strand was a master of drama in the understated… a man who pushed photography toward art… a creator of deceptively simple images – attributes that I definitely admire.

The important thing for photographers to take away from Paul Strand’s work is that our ideas and perspectives as “new picture makers” come from somewhere. In many cases, they can be traced back to Strand. When you take an aesthetic photograph of a printing press roller… when you break perspective with a fence… when you take abstract photographs of light on contrasting surfaces… there is Strand.

This is an important piece of knowledge for every photographer. Ideas are currency and it’s important to understand the economy of ideas if you hope one day to produce original ideas rather than just pretty pictures.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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