Paul Strand has been put on a pedestal so high it can be difficult for a contemporary audience to notice him. In 1945, he became the first photographer to have a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art, and his early urban scenes and abstractions helped cement photography as an integral part of modernity's aesthetic. But if he's so seminal, why hasn't there been a comprehensive retrospective of his work since 1971? Strand should without a doubt be considered one of the greatest American photographers. So why does a Google search of his name return only a few of the photos that are on the following pages?
Strand didn't think reproductions of his photographs did justice to the originals. Viewed in person, his masterful silver and platinum gelatin prints are full of inky shadows and delicate highlights that are impossible to duplicate in print and often translate poorly on screen. Strand's work is also under-discussed because his photos rarely have a "hook." These are serious pictures by a serious man—in many ways the antithesis of pop art. They are black-and-white, lingering on the dark part of the spectrum, and formal in composition.
Georgia O'Keeffe was a friend and subject of Strand's, and she remembered in her later years that his first wife, Rebecca, "was a very lively, lean young woman, and Strand was thick and slow." He liked to arrive at a town square and wait for hours until the locals began to ignore him. Once they would relax into their daily routines, he would sneak his photos. He often used a lens that contained a prism to photograph the people of these places without their knowing. While he pointed the camera in one direction, he could photograph the scene 45 degrees to his left or right.
Today, photographing people without their knowledge is often considered problematic, but because of his sensitive approach, Strand managed to present his subjects as equals rather than others.
This fall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting Strand's first career-spanning retrospective in four decades. The show celebrates the museum's recent acquisition of 3,000 photographs and glass positives from the Paul Strand Archive at the Aperture Foundation. Combined with 600 pieces that Strand's estate gifted the museum in the years following his last retrospective there, in 1971, it now holds the largest collection of his work in the world.
For years, Strand had dreamed of photographing an entire village, an ambition inspired by Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. In 1949, he met Cesare Zavattini, who wrote the screenplay for Vittorio De Sica's neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, and expressed this desire to him. Zavattini encouraged Strand to photograph the Italian town of Luzzara, his birthplace, over the course of more than five weeks in the spring of 1953. Luzzara is a small agricultural town in the Po river valley, known for its cheese industry and its straw hats and horse bridals. Strand and Zavattini chose to focus on local craftsmen as well as family structures. A townsman named Valentino Lusetti, who had learned some English as an American prisoner of war during WWII, acted as their translator and fixer, giving Strand access. In fact, Strand's most iconic group portrait from Luzzara depicts Lusetti's family, posed in front of the facade of their ancestral home. This photograph became the cover of Aperture's 1955 monograph Un Paese, which paired first-person narratives collected by Zavattini with Strand's photographs. Despite the unique achievement of photographing an entire village, the following pages contain images contemporary audiences may largely be unfamiliar with.
Strand's portrait of Luzzara is sincere. The series was created over a long stretch of time and was made using slow exposures in natural light. There is no irony here, only a desire to picture an entire human ecosystem in a way that is slow and cool, but by no means removed. As more and more self-conscious photography is hurled at humankind every day, it's important to remember to stop and look closely at what we consume. Strand understood that photography has the power to change the world. He was willing to sit and wait for the world to look the way it does when nobody notices it. That's why now is a good time to stop and notice Paul Strand.