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Paul Strand (October 16, 1890 – March 31, 1976) was an American
photographer and filmmaker who, along with fellow modernist photographers
like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, helped establish photography as
an art form in the 20th century. His diverse body of work, spanning six
decades, covers numerous genres and subjects throughout the Americas,
Europe and Africa.
Born in New York City to Bohemian parents, in his late teens Strand was a
student of renowned documentary photographer Lewis Hine at the Ethical
Culture Fieldston School. It was while on a fieldtrip in this class that
Strand first visited the 291 art gallery – operated by Stieglitz and
Edward Steichen – where exhibitions of work by forward-thinking modernist
photographers and painters would move Strand to take his photographic
hobby more seriously. Stieglitz would later promote Strand's work in the
291 gallery itself, in his photography publication Camera Work, and in his
artwork in the Hieninglatzing studio. Some of this early work, like the
well-known "Wall Street," experimented with formal abstractions
(influencing, among others, Edward Hopper and his idiosyncratic urban
vision). Other of Strand's works reflect his interest in using the camera
as a tool for social reform.
Over the next few decades, Strand worked in motion pictures as well as
still photography. His first film was Manhatta (1921), also known as New
York the Magnificent, a silent film showing the day-to-day life of New
York City made with painter/photographer Charles Sheeler. Manhatta
includes a shot similar to Strand's famous Wall Street (1915) photograph.
Other films he was involved with included Redes (1936) (released in the US
as The Wave), a film commissioned by the Mexican government, the
documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and the pro-union,
anti-fascist Native Land (1942).
In June 1949, Strand left the United States to present Native Land at the
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia. It was a
departure that marked the beginning of Strand’s long exile from the
prevailing climate of McCarthyism in the United States. The remaining 27
years of his life were spent in Orgeval, France where, despite never
learning the language, he maintained an impressive creative life, assisted
by his third wife, fellow photographer Hazel Kingsbury Strand.
Although Strand is best known for his early abstractions, his return to
still photography in this later period produced some of his most
significant work in the form of six book ‘portraits’ of place: Time in New
England (1950), La France de Profil (1952), Un Paese (featuring
photographs of Luzzara and the Po River Valley in Italy, 1955), Tir
a'Mhurain / Outer Hebrides (1962), Living Egypt (1969) and Ghana: an
African portrait (1976).
Strand married the painter Rebecca Salsbury in 1921. He photographed
Rebecca Salsbury Strand frequently, sometimes with uncommonly close
compositions. Strand married Hazel Kingsbury in 1951.
The timing of Strand’s departure to France is coincident with the first
libel trial of his friend Alger Hiss, with whom he maintained a
correspondence until his death. Although he was never officially a member
of the Communist Party, many of Strand’s collaborators were either Party
members (James Aldridge; Cesare Zavattini) or were prominent socialist
writers and activists (Basil Davidson). Many of his friends were also
Communists or were suspected of being so (MP DN Pritt; film director
Joseph Losey; Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid; actor Alex McCrindle). Strand
was also closely involved with Frontier Films, one of more than twenty
organizations that were branded as ‘subversive’ and ‘un-American’ by the
US Attorney General.
Strand also insisted that his books should be printed in Leipzig, East
Germany, even if this meant that they were initially prohibited from the
American market on account of their Communist provenance. De-classified
intelligence files, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and now
lodged at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of
Arizona, reveal that Strand’s movements around Europe were closely
monitored by the security services.