When Paul Strand initially developed as a photographer around 1910 he followed the prevailing Pictorialist style. He developed a deep knowledge of the image manipulations techniques of Pictorialism and experimented with soft focus lenses and diffused light to give his pictures a painting like quality. His early pictorialist work is often ignored and it remains quite hard to find examples of this early work. Strand’s best known work started after he met Alfred Steglitz around 1915. Under Steglitz influence Strand started to follow the new style call Straight Photography. Instead of using the many image manipulation techniques made popular by pictorialism straight photography was concerned with the production of images that were sharp, detailed and captured reality. At the same time as adopting this new approach Strand also because interested in ‘abstraction’ driven by his interest in the work of cubist painters. Stand’s view of abstraction was rather different from today’s interpretation of the word, he was primarily interested in including bold geometric shapes in his pictures.
Perhaps Strand’s best known work is his picture of Wall Street taken in 1915 where the huge architectural features of the J.P. Morgan bank dwarf the scattered commuters as they appear to rush to work. In some ways. This image can be interpreted as an early commentary on the domination of people by big businesses and in this sense is part of the political activism Strand practised throughout his life.
Another example of Strand’s ‘abstract’ work is “White Fence, Port Kent, New York” shown below. This picture was taken in 1916 the perspective has been flattened making the two buildings in the back ground appear two dimensional while the picket fence slices across the image dominating the frame.
As well as these abstract images, around 1915 Strand also started taking street portraits in New York using a camera with a decoy lens which he would point at one subject while taking a portrait of another. One of the most famous of these pictures is the blind woman who is standing against the wall with a sign around her neck saying blind and a New York peddlers license pined to her coat above it. Strand saw this and the other street portraits he took around this time as illustrating struggles and poverty of many residents of the city.
Later in his career Paul Strand took many portraits of people with their knowledge but somehow these are quire reminiscent of hiss earlier street portraits. The picture below of the boy from Gondeville in France taken in 1952. The boy seems to be staring almost cross eyed at the camera perhaps resentful about the time it was taking Strand to get the portrait he wanted. This picture seems to be almost a precursor to the later work that Richard Avedon made in the Western USA some twenty years later.
Another well known portrait from this period of Strand’s life is the one below of the Mayor of Luzzara in Italy which was taken in 1953. Again, this portrait shows a figure who seems at best wary of the photographer and perhaps becoming irritated. Another way to interpret it is that the mayor is projecting his importance presenting himself almost as the local mafioso.
Paul Strand is regarded as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century he defined the path for modernism in photography and sowed the seeds of the way documentary photography is practised today. He played a key role in establishing photography as an art form. Throughout his life he practised portrait, still life and abstract photography.