Paul Strand’s Intimate Portrait of his Wife, ‘Rebecca’, 1923

Paul Strand was a master of formal abstraction, who helped to define the canon of early American Modernism. This strikingly intimate portrait of Strand’s first wife, the painter Rebecca Salsbury, is one of more than 100 that Strand made of her between 1920, the year they met, and 1932, the year before their divorce. The pair met when Rebecca, known as Beck, was 29 and Strand was 30, and they married two years later. Strand and Rebecca were a part of Alfred Stieglitz’s close circle of friends and Stieglitz’s wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, encouraged the self-taught Rebecca in her painting. The pair frequently painted together at Stieglitz’s home at Lake George. Strand’s project to document his wife paralleled that of Stieglitz’s celebrated series of O’Keeffe, which Strand deeply admired.

Nothing else in Strand’s oeuvre compares to the series of portraits of Rebecca. At no other point in his long career did he use his art to explore an intimate relationship. Known for his dispassionate detachment from his subject and strict formal abstraction of form and line, his usual objectivity gives way to a more personal approach. The portraits show remarkable emotive dexterity and are incredibly intimate. Strand’s earliest portraits of Rebecca, taken between 1920 and 1922 are strained due to the use of the ‘iron virgin,’ a head clamp steadying device used to keep subjects in place. In 1922, Strand began to photograph his wife in bed, with her head resting on a pillow. The removal of the metal constraint allowed Strand considerably more freedom and the subsequent images are exceptionally immediate and sensitive.

One of the strongest in the series, this 1923 portrait focuses on Rebecca’s expressive eyes and eyebrows. Whereas Stieglitz’s series of portraits of O’Keeffe consider her entire body, Strand focuses almost entirely on the face of his muse. With only a handful of nude and hand studies, Strand instead returned again and again to Rebecca’s face, recording each detail with a dedicated and perfect precision. His use of strong lighting emphasises the contours and lines in the face. Her strong features appear powerful and almost primitive as she stares with directness at the camera. The close up cropping contributes to the intimacy of the image, and her powerful gaze renders the image emotive. For each image in the series, Strand used a 4 x 5 Graflex and 9 x 10 view camera. The prints he made at the time were mainly rich platinum and palladium prints. This particular print was made in the 1950s, and is a crisp, clear silver gelatin print. Strand is known to have insisted on the quality and uniqueness of his prints, and this portrait has a striking physical presence.

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