Paul Strand: Photographs From The J. Paul Getty Museum

by Matt Damsker


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Weston Naef, General Editor; introduction by Anne M. Lyden. Published by The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, as part of its "In Focus" series. ISBN-13: 978-0-89256-808-2. 144 pages; 47 plates; paperback. Getty Publications, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Suite 500, Los Angeles, CA 90049-1682. .

Paul Strand's mastery spanned much of the 20th century, resulting in a body of photographic art that sets a high humanistic standard to match his compositional rigor. The sharply etched tonalities and dimensionality of his views are rewarding enough, but combined with a great portraitist's gift for capturing faces and figures at their most expressive, Strand's vision often seems peerless. The J. Paul Getty Museum is blessed with 186 Strand prints, and this collection of about 50 of them is a superb sampling that ranges from the misty pictorialism of his beginnings in 1913 to the rustic height of his mature style in Europe through the 1950s.

Strand's modernist credentials were forged impeccably, as a student of Lewis W. Hine in the early 1900s, and as a protégé of Alfred Steiglitz, who virtually declared Strand the future of the medium when he devoted the final issue of his publication, Camera Work, to Strand's photos in 1917. By then, Strand had absorbed enough influences--including the Cubist innovations on display at the watershed New York Armory exhibition of modern art in 1913--to break new ground with his images. And so it wasn't long before his pictorialist period--exemplified by a soft-focus, impressionist view of trees in Central Park--gave way to formal adventures and indelible shots, such as the 1915 photo, taken from an elevated vantage point, of pedestrians flowing through City Hall Park in New York. Worthy of Degas or Manet, this view of the crowd, with its subtle serpentine rhythm of figures and careful, vertical cropping, evokes Japanese art; yet the atmosphere is pure Manhattan.

In 1916, Strand began using a camera with a false lens that would allow him to photograph people on the street in close up without their being aware, since the false lens pointed forward while the real lens, under his arm, was set at 90 degrees from his line of sight. Strand's ethics may have been questionable, but the deception resulted in some deathless artworks, most famously his 1917 image of a blind woman, her coat buttoned with a municipal badge issued to beggars, and a sign with the word "Blind" hanging around her neck. This photo, which illuminates the invisible humanity of New York, resonates with modernist power, vaulting photography toward conceptualism--the textual prominence of the "Blind" sign suggests that we are as blind to her as she is to us--and also stands as a watershed in social realism.

Strand's purely formal explorations are no less important, though. A 1929 image of a rural shed in Quebec, surrounded by other outbuildings under a richly clouded sky, takes its lead from Cezanne's volumetric treatment of line, shape, and mass, yielding a black-and-white composition of great complexity and depth. Similarly, Strand's famous 1931 shot of New Mexico's Rancho de Taos church rivals Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of the same structure, with its high windowless bulk and wing-like buttress. Strand lets the pure form of the church take up almost the entire frame rather than set it in an expansive landscape, and the effect embodies the spiritual mystery and primitive architectural force of the place. Yet there's power as well in the simple celebratory photo of an apple tree in bloom somewhere in New England, of iced-over farmhouse windows and latched wooden barn doors, and of seascapes in which the light and dark of clouds, sky and sea are accented and contrasted by the human, animal and mineral details on the shore.

Through his wanderings in Mexico, France, Italy, and Scotland from the 1950s onward, Strand captured people, textures, objects, and landscapes with consistent artistry, from the poor Lusetti family and their noble Roman faces to the rugged Scot visages and stonework of the Outer Hebrides. The photographs speak for themselves, but there is also wonderful commentary throughout this book, beginning with a fine introduction by Anne M. Leydon, associate curator at the Getty, who also provides detailed descriptions of each plate. The volume rounds out with the transcript of a roundtable discussion about Strand and his work, featuring Leydon and five other photography experts. Their insights are generous, inspiring a deeper appreciation of Strand's achievement.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.