This week, I went to an early preview showing of the Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century exhibition at the V&A Museum. I wasn’t familiar with Strand’s work, but it wasn’t long before I found myself thoroughly immersed in his life through the lens.
It wasn’t just the beauty of Strand’s pictures that astounded me. Sure, they were lovely to look at; the quality, the composition, the light. To the eye, they were aesthetically pleasing. But to the heart, they were something much more.
New York-born Strand travelled extensively during his career, photographing his way through America, Canada, Mexico, Europe and Africa. While he was a modernist photographer, he didn’t specialise in one type of photography, but rather captured the things that interested him, whether it was an intimate portrait of his first wife or a close-up of cabbages. He also didn’t flit between places and people, snapping fleeting experiences as photographers often do, instead choosing to spend anything between a few weeks to a few months in certain places to understand the local people, the industries they were involved in and how they survived. A placard next to one NYC photograph read, ‘He concentrated on older figures from the various ethnic groups that populated that part of the city. Before him, few photographers had attempted to make such monumental statements about everyday people’. My brain started to fizz with excitement and curiosity.
Strand was an anthropologist.
In the 1950s, he spent over five weeks in the Italian village of Luzzara. One particularly evocative print (the photo at the top) shows the Lusetti family — the mother, and her five sons — stood outside their farmhouse. One of the sons, Valentino, was Strand’s guide around the village, and explained that he had learned English while he was a prisoner of war during the Second World War. In his comments, Strand added that their father, a fellow communist, had been beaten to death by political opponents.
While the photographs tell their own stories, Strand’s notes accompanying each print or collection of prints certainly encourage you to see the photos in a fuller, more perspicacious way. As with most anthropological research, his photos weren’t just about stories, but the evidence of those stories and the source of his conclusions: the people he photographed.
Two siblings, John and Jean MacLellan, who appeared in the above photo when they were children, taken in the Outer Hebrides, came to the exhibition. Jean spoke to me about her experience of the ‘photoshoot’.
‘I don’t remember it, but John does. Our parents must’ve spoken to him [Strand] about it. We were often photographed by two local GPs that were into that, so it was just another photo. We just did what we were told, looking out the window and kneeling on a sofa, or a bench as it was known back then. We didn’t know who he was for a very long time. I had the book at home for years, but it was only a few weeks ago, when this was all happening [the exhibition] and a filmmaker said, ‘you must’ve felt honoured’, that I realised how big he was. I’d like to find out more about the story so I can pass it on to my children.’
It was believed that Strand was motivated to take the photo by the idea that things would change.
After being transported through Strand’s world ventures and his relationship with nature and landscapes, I came to the last photograph. It was of Strand himself, in his garden in France in the 1970s, six years before he died. He was stood holding his camera and looking elsewhere; the perfect denouement.