In the Style of Strand, 2012
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I recently watched a documentary about photographer Paul Strand. I should say I endured the documentary because the best and worst part of it was that it moved painfully slow. The slow pace was appreciated when you were observing Strand’s work or when they showed enough of his motion picture work for the viewer to gain an appreciation of his style and skill in that medium. It wasn’t appreciated, though, when it begged for narration or to move along.
I’ve known of Strand’s work as long as I’ve known anything about photography. He got into photography at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when most photographers were shooting softly focused landscapes to demonstrate, as this documentary points out, that there was artistic choice involved in photography and that it was not just a matter of mechanical reproduction.
Strand took some of his work to show Alfred Stieglitz, arguably the country’s most prominent fine art photographer at the time. Stieglitz chastised Strand for photographing in the soft focus pictorial style and told him to go out and do something different, something that could be his own.
It’s Strand’s work that stems from that encounter that we know best. He abandoned the pictorial style and moved in a direction where strong graphic elements and vivid contrasts between light and dark became his style in both is still and motion pictures. When asked later in life for advice from younger photographers, Strand always started by stating, “The important thing is, you have to have something to say about the world.”
I don’t know if Paul Strand was a likeable person. He had three wives, all of whom quickly realized that they would always come second behind Strand’s photography. His friendship with mentor Alfred Stieglitz ran hot and cold through the years.
What I do know is that I share some of Strand’s experience with photography. Strand realized during a high school field trip to Stieglitz’s gallery in New York that, “…this is what I want to do.” When I was that age I was introduced to work that showed me how still photographs could tell whole stories about people and places. Strand started in the pictorial style. I started in the pictorial style. Strand got challenged by Stieglitz to “do something different.” I got told by a respected photography curator to avoid the “expected.”
The difference between us are that Strand was a lot younger when he got this advice, and he made it his life's calling. I’m still catching up and back when I was smitten I didn't realize it could be anything more than an avocation.
[By the way, in the course of looking for a link to the Strand documentary to share with you, I stumbled across this cool documentary about Sally Mann. I’ve not always been a big fan of her work. But I’ll confess that I was charmed by her in this documentary.]