2. Paul Strand after Margaret Mead
Published: 10.06.2014
in the series Centrist Liberalism Triumphant: Postwar Humanist Reframing of Documentary
Previous Next

In this second post I’d like to expand the scenario somewhat by introducing a few other possible significant references for an interpretation of the logics of the 1950s.

In 1949, Beaumont Newhall’s 1937 catalogue of the MOMA exhibition, Photography 1839-1937, appeared revised and enlarged as an autonomous book: The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day. Postwar liberal modernist photographic culture now had its foundational text, its Bible. Chapter 10 in Newhall’s book was devoted to documentary, and the genealogy it proposes on the subject remains as canonical as Newhall’s history itself. The genealogy is as follows: first we have the 1860s and 1870s geographical surveys as a pre-history of documentary. Then we have Jacob Riis as the precursor and Lewis Hine as the founding father of 20th century documentary photography, which reaches its complete and most self-aware form with the FSA. Obviously I’m simplifying but this is the core of the narrative. Importantly, Newhall refers to John Grierson and the British film documentary movement as the modernist, self-aware source moment of the documentary discourse.

Also in 1949, Paul Strand moved to France. Strand is an extremely important reference in this narrative, since he paradigmatically embodies the documentary dilemmas and contradictions in American modernist photographic culture, and represents a most significant (missing) link between the 1930s and the postwar period. A Photo League mentor, Strand served as its role model in the prewar period, when the League was formed in 1936 as a spinoff of the former Workers’ Film and Photo League, which had been established in 1930 through the Communist International Worker Photography networks. Strand’s self-exile was a response to McCarthyism, which also led to the dissolution of the Photo League in 1951. Interestingly, the Photo League is absent (repressed?) in Newhall’s account, except for the mention that it was the repository of Lewis Hine’s archive.

In 1950, Strand published Time in New England, the first of a series of photo-book projects that would be the core of his activity until his death in 1976, including by La France de profil (1952), Un paese (1955), and a few others in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Following the same approach that he started in Mexico in the early thirties while making his film Redes, Strand’s artistic operation consisted in the representation of a specific rural community and its everyday struggle for life as a result of the photographer’s own experience living in such communities for a period of time.

The photographs express the dignity of vernacular forms of labor, creativity, and the spirit of resistance, all embedded within the distinct cultural and physical geographies of the various communities. With this book series, made in New England, regions of France and Italy, the Hebrides, Egypt, and Ghana, Strand seemed to be willing to demonstrate that social life is rooted in a spontaneous communism of sorts, understood as a kind of pre-political and universal human condition, and most accessible in more or less remote, rural, pre-modern parts of the world.

To me, Strand seems to be a relatively neglected precursor of “collaborative” contemporary forms of documentary, such as that of Chris Killip (obvious) or Marc Pataut (less obvious). Blake Stimson has developed the interesting concept of “photographic communism” in relation to Strand, arguing that in Un paese, his representation of a family at the door of their house in Luzzara, we can see a “basic cell” for a communist social organization. Reluctant to accept a somewhat stereotyped, left-wing interpretation of Strand as a Romantic communist (which is to some extent my own), Stimson finds in him a source for an argument on the crucial role of the State in progressive or socialist politics, as opposed to the Deleuze-Guattarian inflection in contemporary micro-political revolutionary discourses.

Stimson actually opened the door for renovated interpretations of postwar humanism with his productive and against-the-grain reading of the other great humanist monument of the fifties, namely The Family of Man. In his excellent book The Pivot of the World, he argues that The Family of Man produced an inclusive transnational public sphere corresponding to the last moment when social inclusion and citizenry was produced though political participation, rather than by access to consumer goods (as happened after the sixties). The Family of Man corresponded to homo politicus, to be replaced soon by homo oeconomicus. It should be noted that the fifties are also the last moment of hegemony of photography in mass media before the arrival of television in the following decade.

The impact of The Family of Man is hard to describe. It was not merely a media effect and I can only recommend the visit to Clervaux castle in Luxemburg, where the only surviving original edition of the exhibition remains on permanent display. My visit to Clervaux and the showing I did in The Universal Archive exhibition (MACBA, Barcelona, 2008) of two of Dorothea Lange’s walls from The Bitter Years with the original enlargements from the 1962 MOMA show, convinced me of Edward Steichen’s sophistication as an exhibition designer and his deep understanding of El Lissitzky’s and Herbert Bayer’s innovations from the late twenties. Existing books on these Steichen exhibitions do not really convey this point effectively, particularly the recent monograph on The Bitter Years.

The Family of Man was like the B-Bomb of the fifties’ photographic culture. It travelled the world and had various epigone exhibitions, notably in Europe in the sixties. Its radiation arrived everywhere. The pre-political, anthropological universal human condition it represented was articulated by Margaret Mead, whom I see as the organic intellectual of photographic humanism in the West, or at least in the United States. Her contribution was articulated through some articles on photography, where she defended Life magazine and The Family of Man as the ruling paradigmatic forms of universal literacy and education, as well as through her photo-book projects, starting with Balinese Character (1942) and culminating with Family (1965).Photo-ethnography is the other main iconographic source of humanism, besides war photojournalism.The idea of photography as a universal language corresponds to an equivalentuniversalist understanding of the human condition. Universal consensus is rooted in some sort of equality given by the shared nakedness, suffering and precariousness inherent to human living. Universalism is also the condition or metaphor of the transnational institutions of the Cold War as well as that of the global circulation, or “traffic,” of photographs in magazines, photo-books, and world-exhibitions. Big Brother is rather the “big father” (USA, UN, NATO, MOMA…) of the “big family” (capitalism). Strand’s spontaneous communism is re-signified into Mead’s spontaneous liberalism.

Steichen, Strand, Newhall, Mead… the heroes/villains proliferate.

10 comment(s)
antonella russo
Posted 16.06.2014 at 13:05

Dear Jorge,

Here are some comments on topics you addressed in your recent post that I’d like to share with you and all our readers.

Firstly I’d like to elaborate further on the distinction – which you hinted at – between Beaumont Newhall’s "Photography 1839-1937" catalogue of the ominous exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art (1937; reprinted in 1948 as "Photography: A Short Critical History") and its transformation into that “Canon” of photography we all – in the Western hemisphere – are familiar with i.e. "The History of Photography from 1839 to the present day "published in 1964 .

Included among the advisors of "Photography 1839-1937" were photographers as different as Laszlo Moholy Nagy, Alexey Brodovitch, Edward Steichen and film-maker Paul Rotha. In its genealogy of technical procedures and inventors, it also incorporated scientific and astronomical photography as well as a “moving pictures” section complete with movies by British, French, U.S., German, U.S.S. R. filmmakers (Grierson, Song of Ceylon, Rotha, The Way to the Sea, Man Ray, L’Etoile de Mer, Renè Clair, Paris Qui Dort, Fritz Lang, Metropolis, Georg Pabst, The Love of Jeanne Ney, David W. Griffith, Intolerance , Robert Flaherty, Moana of the South Sea, Sergei M. Eisenstein, October, Vsevolod Pudovkin, The End of St. Petersburg among many others) .

So while the exhibition and catalogue could be seen as Newhall's re-elaboration of a residue of Moholy Nagy's "New Vision", the narrative of the History of Photography focused entirely on the aesthetics of the medium, elaborating a textbook to promote photography as a discipline, dismissing the idea of photography as a tool in modern visual culture.
The elimination of any reference to Moholy Nagy’s “visual communication” in Newhall’s program came not in the early 1960s when his History was published but had already been fully declared by 1940 with the foundation of the MoMA photographic department and with Newhall’s appointment as its first curator.

His photography program directly contrasted at the time with Steichen’s popular (and populistic) photo exhibitions (“Road to Victory” in 1942 and “Power in the Pacific” in 1945). While Steichen’s shows aimed at hanging giant layouts from illustrated magazines directly on the museum walls, Newhall’s exhibits resembled pages of art monographs, meeting museological high-profile standards. These two different curatorial policies were only carried out in the same museum for a decade, until 1947 when Steichen was nominated director of the Photography Department causing Newhall’s resignation as curator.

2.One of the consequences in Newhall’s "History of Photography" genealogy of “Human documentarism” photography from Riis to Hine to “Grierson’s unartistic” FSA photography was that somehow the Democratic party propaganda scope of Stryker’s mission was disregarded together with any indication of FSA’s pictures published as photo-texts in illustrated magazines and journals of the 1930s.
A useful research project would be the study of the impact of FSA photography on European intellectuals in the pre World War II years. I am thinking for instance of Communist writer and photo editor Elio Vittorini and his enthusiastic reception of FSA photography as an expression of a USA democratic and ethical vision (see his "Americana", 1941) versus Theodor Adorno’s indictment of the pictures of miserable shacks of sharecroppers as the product of a cynical cultural industry which promotes the triumph of falsity covering socio-political problems with questions of a style.( see his " Dialectic of Enlightenment ",1947)

3. Let me elaborate on your notion of Strand’s romantic Communism.
Strand first arrived in Italy on September 1949 and spoke at the International Cinema Symposium in Perugia as director of “Frontier Film” independent movie production, sharing his understanding of “(neo)realism as dynamic as truth itself able to see and comprehend an ever-evolving world and change it to promote peace and progress for all people.” (in Umberto Barbaro "Il cinema e l’uomo moderno", Le edizioni sociali, Milano, 1950, pp.173-179) I am not sure about Blake Stimson’s understanding of Paul Strand’s Italian work. Historically in this country “Un Paese” was perceived by alert photo critics a fictitious, a late Neorealist photo book and an incoherent one, informed on one side by Zavattini’s Catholic Communism and on the other by Strand own “native” Communism imposed upon Luzzara and Luzzaresi’s portraits.

4. I also would like to substantiate your idea that "The Family of Man" was an exhibition produced for visitors to a global show and conceived thus as a political show.
In the early fifties Steichen curated “Postwar European Photography”, more than 300 photographs from 11 countries, an exhibition conceived “in recognition of the achievement of these photographers who were severely hampered by lack of materials and equipment and by the fact that during the war years creative photography was practically suppressed in most countries.” It showed work by professionals Robert Frank, Ernst Haas, Werner Bischof, Bill Brandt and also amateur photographers some of whom had their first show in a museum. A whole squad of well-known French photographers (Cartier Bresson, Iziz, Doisneau, Brassai and others) was also included. I believe that this humanist exhibition (photos of the return of prisoners of wars, miners of Wales, crowds waiting for a much heralded miracle) was somehow a rehearsal for the preparation of a much larger "The Family of Man" (http://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/1720/releases/MOMA_1953_0050_45.pdf?2010). Steichen traveled in Europe in the early Fifties and contacted many amateur photography clubs and photo agencies and even proposed and offered to open "The Family of Man – An exhibition of creative photography dedicated to the dignity of Man" in an institution in Luxemburg, his birth place, with no success.

Blake Stimson
Posted 16.06.2014 at 17:55

Dear Jorge,

Many thanks for your thoughtful commentary on these matters, and for your generous and incisive engagement with my work. In a like spirit I want to raise a question about your heading "Paul Strand after Margaret Mead." Your suggestion that Strand became a kind of Meadian by turning to a pre-political, anthropological, universalist humanism seems fair enough although I take the question of what kind to remain an open one.

It is certainly true that Strand had an anthropology or theory of human nature that was humanist and universalist. It also might be said that he photographed people, landscapes, and artifacts in a manner that cast them as pre-political in the way that you suggest. However, we might ask what these values or attributes meant to him, what form they took in his work, and what they might mean to us today. For example, the pre-political quality may have meant something different to him than it meant to Mead given that he (in contrast to Mead) was so resolutely politically-minded in the older conventional sense of concern with the institutions of governance rather than the newer conventional sense that concerns itself with patterns of culture.

There are various ways to assess this but Native Land might provide the most accessible account with its narrative progression from pre-political nature rooted in the land to the political work of the union movement and congressional committees. The pre-political in Strand’s work, in other words, might be seen not as a value or core human condition that needs to be uncovered by anthropological insight but instead as a developmental phase out of which the political matures and emerges.

There are precedents for such a historical humanist anthropology, of course. Perhaps the most useful (because closest to Strand’s) is Marx’s, such as when he called for a "return of man to his human, i.e. social, life." The pre-political in this account is at once alienated from its "human, i.e. social, life" and capable of accessing it as a capacity innate to that alienation. In this regard we could say that while "liberal" is an accurate enough term for describing Mead’s humanism it may not be so for Strand and modifiers like "historical" or "social" or even "socialist" or "communist" might serve better in its stead.

One insight that the virulent neoliberalism of our own day has bequeathed to us with greater clarity than ever before is just how anti-humanist, anti-universalist, and anti-political liberalism has always been. It has always been a vehement form of secularization against Hegel’s notion of our "actual God”--i.e., the state as an idea and ideal or the society that Margaret Thatcher said did not exist. In a word, liberalism is culturalist or social-constructionist and Mead’s model of difference-within-sameness might indeed be seen to be in league with--maybe even to have contributed in significant measure to--the destruction of the potential for "human, i.e. social, life" by Thatcherism and its ilk and by the widespread anti-governmentalism that has flowered from it in our own day.

In sum then I’ll just second the point made by Sarah in response to your first post that Mead’s and Strand’s day was defined by competing communist and capitalist universalisms (or really by a competition between a universalism close close enough to the one outlined by Marx above and a totalizing anti-universalism suggested by Mead’s de-subjectivized textile metaphor--"If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place"). Really this was a battle over competing accounts of human nature (accounts that each have meaningful truths at their core, of course, but that makes the battle no less vital, no more ambivalent). As far removed as it often seems, my own sense is that this terrain remains the foremost undertheorized and unfought battleground for our own day.

Jorge Ribalta
Posted 17.06.2014 at 11:24

Dear Blake, thank you for your brilliant comment.
Right, I was uncertain about how to link Strand to Mead in my title and probably "after" is not the perfect link. It is probably misleading, particularly it may suggest that Strand was a Mead follower. But actually there was a question mark in the title that now I realize I erased in the course of the text modifications (blame it on the blog "spontaneity"). But, anyway, I feel/hope that the tension between the two modes of humanist universalism in them is noticeable. "After" here means somehow "under", in the sense that I keep thinking of Strand as a loser. Borges said that celebrity is a form of misunderstanding and I feel that the case of Strand is one of the most tragic demonstrations of that. I was trying to express the kind of unreadability of Strand in a context dominated by liberal humanism. Such unreadability I think still remains today. In other words , I was trying to express how certain forms of resistance may become invisible or subsumed into the immanence of the historical forces they struggle with. And I totally agree on the actuality of such debate. Thanks a lot for your contribution, which brings the necessary complexity to the discussion.

Jorge Ribalta
Posted 17.06.2014 at 13:25

Dear Antonella,
Thank you very much for your elaboration! Your remark on the Postwar European Photography exhibition as a bridge the The Family of Man is excellent.
I actually would like to ask you to expand and elaborate a bit more on the presence of Strand in Italy. And I'd also like to link your remark on the Vittorini-Adorno FSA polemics to the discussion with Blake around the Strand-Mead ambivalences of the postwar humanist universalism. Strand always triggers this debate in a very significant way. My next post coming very soon is about the political ambivalence of victim imagery. I think this point, that has been raised around Strand, is the core of the discussion I was trying to bring here in this blog, I mean the structural ideological ambiguity of liberal humanism, which we cannot simply refuse as reactionary, nor embrace as emancipatory. A kind of unsurpassable "in-between" that expresses the equally unsurpassable unconscious framework of the State form.

Sarah James
Posted 18.06.2014 at 12:17

Dear Jorge,

Thanks for the second post - and for continuing such an engaging and engaged conversation - made clear by both Antonella and Blake's responses.

I thought I'd offer a few thoughts on both 'the logics of the 1950s' as well as the complex and contrary nature of the kind of universalising within which photography became entangled in this decade.

I think it is indisputable that Newhall's rewriting of photography's history from a liberal modernist perspective has led to the repression and marginalisation of a great deal of practice that emerged in the pre and postwar years. But I think it is equally important to note - as Antonella rightly does - the disjuncture between the history of photography's histories and its exhibitions. It's true that the radical paradigm represented by Moholy-Nagy is eradicated from Newhall's book, and with it the much broader, cultural, social and potentially political fields of photographic practice. With this in mind, I always found it fascinating that the very first photography exhibition at MoMA in 1932 'Murals by American Painters and Photographers' (http://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/97/releases/MOMA_1932_0034_1932-04-23.pdf?2010)
actually included photography, not as individual fine art prints, but as expansive, wall-size murals - hence not a million miles away from either the avant-garde photo-murals of Lissitzky or their reimaginings by Steichen. More intriguingly, it did so to prioritise the mural as a form of art excluded from the museum. Notably the work of Ben Shahn was featured in this exhibition, as well as photo-murals by Steichen himself.

And in response to Antonella's point about the 'Postwar European Photography' 1953 exhibition as a kind of precursor to 'The Family of Man', I think I would argue that it wasn't so much a precedent, but despite coming first, can be thought of as more of a kind of remainder of what had to be excluded from the latter (when Steichen toured Europe it seemed clear that he already had plans for both exhibitions). Ok, Steichen used some of the same universalising language to claim the humanist nature of the images in his framing of the exhibition, but the bulk of it was made up by experimental, formalist, and importantly 'artistic' images - the abstract, experimental, avant-garde, surreal images that Steichen didn't want to include in his 'Family of Man'. For example, the Subjketive Fotografie of Otto Steinert featured heavily. And in the press release this is clear when Steichen stresses his emphasis is on 'the art of photography'. It is interesting that he saw the need to split the artistic/formal from the documentary at this juncture, and that he saw the latter and not the former as enabling his transnational universal project. What a different Family of Man it might have been if he had combined both...

Which brings us back to Paul Strand's complex position in photo-history. Jorge - I think you are right to see Strand as embodying many of the contradictions in American modernist photo culture of this period. But it is obviously a line of fracture - formalism versus political commitment - that bisects the prewar avant-garde, and continues to have repercussions for postwar and more recent praxis and theory. Perhaps this is why John Heartfield has to be granted such an important place in understanding/unpacking these complexities?

The final point I think I'd make in terms of the pre-political universal condition of communism, versus the cold war ideological battles of communism - and in relation to both Strand and to Steichen's 'Family of Man' - is that the mobilisation of photography in as a kind of flattening universalisation - which as Blake rightly stresses is absolutely about a battle around human nature - is never without the contrary reflection or inclusion of the ideological 'other'. I say this just because once one thinks about illustrated magazines, photojournalism, etc in the cold war period, there are as many examples of a strange, performative appropriation of the opposing ideology - be it capitalism or communism - as there are attempts to homogenise and totalise. For example, I’m thinking of the cold war pageants in which good Americans played agitated communists, or the glossy Hollywood-style shots or improvised fashion photography in socialist magazines in Eastern Europe. As well of the deployment of Abstract Expressionism – as an ultimate symbol of liberal democracy abroad, whilst simultaneously being under suspicion of its bohemian and communist tendencies at home. This is a complex part of the picture - for communism and capitalism to be the totalising creed - and ultimate model of human nature - the goal over which both ideologies fought, to some degree they also had to contain, incorporate, absorb, triumph over and subsume their polarised opposite. Photography seemed to take on a particularly privileged role in these reflections and representations - in picturing the desires and anxieties that animated such contrary and conflicted battles – at the heart of the universalizing and polarising imagination of the 1950s. This meant it required, demanded and produced quite a complex spactator and subject - and this is something completely lost in narratives and histories that have too neatly separated art from propaganda, liberal from totalitarian, autonomous from instrumentalised.

antonella russo
Posted 18.06.2014 at 16:47

Dear Jorge,
Here are some further comments on Strand’s “Un Paese” reception in Italy, a photobook that represented for both the photographer and Zavattini the opportunity to fulfill their own life-project. Specifically to Strand Luzzara was that village he always wished to portray together with its inhabitants , their peasant culture and costumes; for Zavattini on the other hand “Un Paese” was going to be the first of many Neorealist books of a series entitled “Italia mia” which would show some Italian cities as “cinema onto a book”.
Strand photographed having his literary heroes (Lee Masters’ “Spoon River” and Anderson “Winesburg, Ohio”) in mind and took pictures of Luzzaresi dressed up as “natives” with his imposing Deardoff camera; Zavattini on the other hand wrote captions to his pictures as straight –forward self-presentations suited for a “instamatic camera” shots .
Moreover the two hardly spoke – Zavattini did not speak English and Strand spoke no French and no Italian and spent less than a week together vising possible locations.
As Italian critic Giuseppe Turroni aptly noted the result was a passionately incoherent book, one in which Strand’s severe and quasi-anthropological portraits did not match the forced “naivete” of Zavattini’s texts.
I believe that the real dilemma ( or tragedy) Strand was confronted with (maybe removed ) was that upon his arrival in Luzzara, Strand realized that any authentic, genuine peasant Italian culture was inevitably lost.
( Much like De Martino who during his 1950s photographic expeditions realized that for the most part Southern - Italian peasant culture was lost) . The American photographer arrived and worked in a post- neorealist Italy, one which was already undergoing a fierce industrialization. This maybe one of the reasons why Strand’s Luzzaresi pictures have a “Spoon River quality” to them, they are severe and distant , people of another century and another country which Zavattini’s captions cannot bring back to their present.
In a way I think "Un paese" provides us Strand’s personal reinvention of the FSA anthropological portraits, i.e. documents of unity and intensity of expression, getting to “the core of their humanity.”
It is precisely such representation of noble and “worthy” lower (peasant) classes epitomized by FSA pictures which appealed to Italian writer Elio Vittorini who included many Lange’s and Evan’s pictures in his "Americana" (1941) turning the Roosevelt’s USA into a universal oasis of democracy. We need to read such a mythology against the background of Fascist Italy when the regime censorship reached its peak . But at the end of the same decade, Vittorini --who continued to publish FSA pictures in his literary magazine “ Il Politecnico” -- had to defend them from the personal attacks of the head of PCI Palmiro Togliatti actively promoting a virulent zdanovist approach to (visual) culture in Italy.
It also seems to me that elaborating on Culture industry,Adorno hints that–the miserable sharecropper ‘s shantyhouse picture (he does not mention FSA photography ) – betrays a falsity soon adopted as a convention or turned into a “style” which becomes a “dominant form of universality much like in music, painting and verbal languages.”
Adorno seems to hint that any representation (or portrait) of a social class cannot (should not) erase nor repress its inherent socio-political contraddictions. In this country, it was Pasolini who first questioned and overturned the dominant mode
( style) of the sociodemocratic representation of “the good poor” imposed by the FSA documentary model.

antonella russo
Posted 19.06.2014 at 09:43

Dear Sarah,
I just would like to qualify (justify) my statement on “Postwar European Photography” 1953 Steichen exhibition at MoMa which as you stated, was not a first raw version of “The Family of Man “ --in which for instance, all Italian works included in the 1953 both abstract photography and documentary were erased-- but rather a sort of testing ground for some ideas he developed in his best known show.
In “Postwar “ exhibition Steichen in very liberal way gave exposure to all trends as they were developed in European photoamateur associations he had visited as early as 1951 and studied through their magazines and catalogues and recognized that they were –In Europe as in the USA—an very important tassel within contemporary photographic culture and key to circulate (popularize) his “Family” Moreover–at least for Italy— some postwar photoassociations .i.e. Donzelli’s Unione Fotografica had very close links with Steinert’s Subjective Fotografie.
I believe that by exposing a vast, complete spectrum of European postwar photography enabled Steichen to detected that sort of “will to life” that ran through the show, a will to endure and overcome tragedies within and beyond war and its horrors that he decided to “glorify” in his later “Family of Man “ ,the exhibition that was to show “ a “ beauty and resources of the earth” and “which symbolizes the universality of human emotions.” This is may be the reason why he privileged documentary over abstraction. To Steichen “The Family of Man” could have only existed as a documentary and thus universal show and it could have been only declined in the “aoristic” tense.

Sarah James
Posted 20.06.2014 at 13:29

Dear Antonella,

I agree - this sounds like a very compelling reading of the exhibition. But I'm interested in the different kind of universalism Steichen might have been claiming for both. Reading the United States Information Agency files on 'The Family of Man' is also fascinating in this respect - in that one of the main strengths - propaganda-wise - of the exhibition was understood to be based in the fact that it wasnt perceived as an 'art' exhibition. The former more certainly was. But I definitely take your point...!


Geoffrey James
Posted 24.06.2014 at 18:14

I am reluctant to enter this discussion with what amounts to little more than anecdote, but I have always found Strand to be an enigmatic figure. I went to visit him in Orgeval in 1971, with the intention of publishing an interview and portfolio for Vie Des Arts, a Montreal art review. When I stopped at the village cafe for directions, I got the distinct impression that Monsieur Strand was not particularly well liked . His house, a fine stone structure, was beautiful, and he had some good paintings -- Bonnard and Vuillard, he said, were the last painters he really liked. I had hoped to have a conversation about the radical images of 1913 -- "Blind" and "Wall Street" in particular, but he had absolutely no interest in talking about that period. What he wanted to show me was his latest work, from Egypt. Hazel was sent to close the shutters, and the mounted prints were ceremoniously shown propped up on a high-backed chair with two photo-floods pointed at them. I was interested to learn of his working method for the books, which involved hiring a writer and making a shooting script in advance, rather like preparing for a film I have always found the later work to be curiously lifeless. He was in these scenarios always the outsider, as he was in France, where in spite of the idealization of the peasant -- at a time when, as Hobsbawm points out, the peasant economy in Europe had essentially come to an end. ( I can't help thinking of John Berger here, too.) The only time he became animated was when talking about technical issues -- he became noticeably more friendly when he saw a Leica on the seat of my car. He was an aesthetic perfectionist, and I find his connection to the subject to be ultimately very hard to fathom.

Jorge Ribalta
Posted 07.07.2014 at 12:33

I agree in finding Strand enigmatic. To me he is one of the greatest enigmas of Modernism!

Cancel reply