Changing Spaces: The Paul Strand Exhibit

Paul Strand (1890-1976) is a late modern American photographer. He dealt with photography in the Americas, various spots in Europe, and Africa. Alfred Stieglitz, a showing artist at the time, influenced and taught Strand. Steiglitz gave Strand some of his first exhibitions at his “291” art gallery. From there onward, Strand explored candid street photography and machine forms. He later moved on to study natural forms, make extensive pictorial “narratives” of locations he had lived in or worked in, and examine portraiture.

The exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography (October 21, 2014 – January 4, 2015) is a comprehensive survey of Strand’s photographic career. Several of Alfred Steiglitz’s photographs are also displayed. The exhibit provides an especially effective tour of Strand’s work in the two media of film and photography. The films provide nice counterbalances and enhancements to the static photography. Moreover, the changing space of the exhibit gives the gallery-goer a hint of an overarching thesis in the distribution of Strand’s work.

The exhibit opened into a room reminiscent of a clean underpass or a polished construction site. Thick rectangular pillars to the right and left broke my peripheral view into sections, and the ceiling hung prohibitively close. Furthest ahead, down the tunnel of vision the exhibition created, was a frosted glass pane lit cooly blue by a movie playing behind it. On either far wall hung Strand’s work. The pieces were lit with a warm light and hung on gray walls, taking on the job of providing contrast to their surroundings. The darkness of each piece stood out starkly, paying homage to the sharp differences of light within each of Strand’s photographs. Strand’s work is a definitive example of contrast, being aided by its object-based, rather than emotional nature.

I passed out of the low-ceilinged room into the next, enormously tall gallery by way of Wall Street and Manhatta. Wall Street shows the gallery goer the anonymity of man in the modern city scape. The great size and imposition of straight-edged, modern architecture becomes a force for man to be subservient to. Manhatta reinforces the grandness of the modern early 1900’s Manhattan.

I felt smaller, and less personal in the new, larger room. The ceiling did not even give the luxury of being solid. It was laid in an open grid, with the piping and lighting visible. The only solid surface became the walls around. Subject matter, however, changed in this larger space. The photographs, which had previously been solely about spaces and buildings, turned to a more personal subject area. Portraits of Strand’s wife, all entitled Rebecca, caught my attention, along with the portraits of Georgia O’Keefe by Alfred Steiglitz.

The room also contained more natural subject matters, introducing southwestern rough architecture and plants. One prominent wall blocking view to the rest of the room presented only scenes of rocks and driftwood. The southwestern architecture was coupled with portraits of the weathered people who live around them. At various points away from the walls of the gallery stood pedestals with some of Strand’s smaller prints. The “important” prints were laid back-to-back on other “less important” prints in order to keep them from curling at the edges. This turned the pedestals into small carousels for gallery-goers. The carousels played along to the orchestral music coming from Strand’s Redes, which ran out of sight in the next room.

Just before moving on to Redes,  a central print entitled Skeleton / Swastika, Connecticut was displayed on a frosted glass pane. The print depicted a skeleton hung on a swastika. This was the only politically charged piece in the entire exhibit besides perhaps, Native Land. The selection of Native Land which was shown after Redes did not even display the movie’s political agenda. The print provided a view into Strand’s anti-fascist ideology, but seemed somewhat out of place in the exhibit. I can reconcile with the piece’s presence however, because the exhibition was made to be a survey of Strand’s total portfolio, which indeed contained art of a political nature.

The selection of Redes chosen to be shown in the gallery provided the viewer with images of white-hatted men working together to catch fish at the shore of the expansive, sun-washed sea. This film room was the pivot section of the gallery into another corridor which went off to the right. At this point, the corridor was almost like a stream. I was pulled by the water of Redes, struck particularly, I may add, by Strand’s Young Boy from Gondeville. The piece commanded my attention to the bridge of the nose with the severity of the subject. Even the wooden background portrayed a foreign kind of simplicity. He embodied new France.

In the corridor, Strand’s works portraying narratives of different locations are displayed. I find myself deposited in a wider room, having been stopped by the central wall which blocked my view earlier. In this room I find scenes from France on one side and scenes from Italy on another. The Family from Luzzara commanded the Italian space in this room, whereas the Young boy commanded the French side from further back in the gallery. This created for me a set of opposing forces which kept me circulating in this section of the gallery. I did find it difficult to move back up the corridor against the flow that it created. After this room, I was taken down the final corridor and deposited outside the gallery.

While watching Manhatta, I remembered a comment that a friend made on the way to the gallery. We had stopped and stood on the street, looking up at the facade of a building, and they remarked, “people don’t look up enough.” Paul Strand “looked up” with a critical eye, but as can be seen from his portfolio, took the time to look down at smaller aspects of humanity. He explored the juxtaposition between uniqueness and anonymity, the old and the new, the natural and the unnatural, the big and the small. This exhibit provided an accordingly variable space which kept the gallery-goers circulating. I would recommend the exhibition to all casual museum goers and professional artists (that’s right, you most likely huge population of professional artists reading this). No foundation in photographic arts, nor even previous appreciation of the art, seemed necessary. I was so struck by Strand’s work that I gained a new appreciation for the photographic medium, and was introduced to the work of a true master in a compelling space.

Featured image courtesy of Library of Congress

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