A master of formal abstraction and sharp-focused realism, Paul Strand (1890-1976) contributed significantly to the establishment of photography as an art form in the twentieth century, alongside Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston.
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Paul Strand was born in 1890 in New York City to Czechoslovakian parents. Strand was given his first camera by his father at the age of twelve. He was a student of renowned documentary photographer Lewis Hine, who instilled humanistic values in the young photographer. Edward Steichen too, hugely influenced Strand. The two met at Steichen’s famous 291 art gallery in 1913. As an aspiring young photographer, Strand frequently visited the gallery, eagerly absorbing the latest developments in European avant-garde art.
Stieglitz promoted Strand’s work in the 291 gallery itself, and in his photography publication Camera Work. Stieglitz criticized the graphic softness of Strand’s early photographs and encouraged Strand to dramatically change his technique. Strand made extraordinary photographs on three principal themes: movement in the city, abstractions, and street portraits. His earliest masterpiece Wall Street, 1915, captured workers passing in front of the monolithic Morgan Trust Company building. The image experimented with formal abstraction juxtaposed with sharp-focused realism. Alongside Steichen, Strand helped to define the canon of early American Modernism.
Strand, too, proved to be a master of portraiture. In 1916, Strand explored New York’s streets, making portraits of the anonymous figures that he came across. He used a false lens on his boxy camera in order to capture the sitter unobtrusively. At the outbreak of war in 1918, Strand joined the Army Medical Corps for a year of service, enlisting as a conscientious objector. Returning to New York in 1919, he acquired an 8 x 10 view camera that radically changed his photographic output, encouraging him to look more widely at his surroundings.
Between 1920 and 1921 Strand worked on the avant-garde film Manhatta, in collaboration with the painter and photographer Charles Sheeler. The ten-minute film traces a single day in New York from sunrise to sunset, punctuated with lines of poetry by Walt Whitman. Strand married his first wife, Rebecca Salsbury shortly after he finished work on Manhatta, in the January of 1922. He made a series of more than 100 photographs of her between 1920, the year they met, and 1932, the year before their divorce. Strand’s project to document his wife paralleled that of Stieglitz’s celebrated series of O’Keeffe, which Strand deeply admired.
In the 1930s he made trips to Canada, Colorado and New Mexico and began using a medium-format Graflex camera. After his marriage to Rebecca disintegrated in 1932 he lived in Mexico for two years. He married Virginia Stevens in 1935 and his focus for the next decade would be his filmmaking.
In June 1949, Strand left the United States for France. He spent his remaining years in Orgeval, and he continued to work in a humanistic vein. He married fellow photographer Hazel Kingsbury in 1951. In his formative years, Strand worked on six book portraits of places, including the Outer Hebrides Islands, Luzzara, Italy and Ghana. For these works he embedded himself within the community, becoming close with both the people and the place.
Paul Strand died in Orgeval at the age of eighty-five.