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Q&A: Peter Barberie on Paul Strand

black and white photograph

Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France,1951 © 2014 Paul Strand Archive/Aperture Foundation, Inc.

Last fall a retrospective of Paul Strand’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) featured 250 photographs by the modernist master. Strand helped establish photography as an art form in its own right, experimenting with abstraction, documentary, and filmmaking, from as early as 1910 through the 1970s. Yale University Press published the exhibition catalogue, edited by Peter Barberie, PMA Brodsky Curator of Photographs, while to coincide with the new survey, Aperture republished Aperture Masters of Photography Series: Paul Strand, with a new introduction and texts by Barberie. The Paul Strand Archive at Aperture Foundation works in partnership with the PMA—the home of the Paul Strand Collection—to preserve and promote Strand’s legacy. Online editor Alexandra Pechman spoke with him last fall about the exhibition, which opens at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, on March 7. This article first appeared in Issue 1 of the new Aperture Photography App: click here to read more and download the app. 

Alexandra Pechman: There are so many thousands of photographs now in the museum’s collection, which, as you talk about in the book give a whole new perspective on the work. What to you is the most interesting aspect of what we couldn’t see about the work before?

Peter Barberie: The place I like to start from is Alfred Stieglitz, who of course is Strand’s great mentor, and who thought in order to understand an artist’s work you have to be able to trace his or her development. Stieglitz of course kept a great body of his work together, and he wanted to show a single artist’s work over time. One thing to say is that it’s a great tribute to that conviction of Stieglitz’s that we’ve assembled examples of Strand’s work from every moment of his career, in one collection.

In terms of what you can see that you couldn’t see before, Strand always insisted on the continuity of his ideas in his work. He insisted on that without really explaining it completely, so it’s always a little enigmatic to see what he meant. But you can, for instance, look at his portraits from 1916 all the way up to the late 1960s and see his ideas about representing individuals.

AP: There’s that quote you mention about [Georgia] O’Keeffe calling him “thick and slow,” as both a compliment and a slight at the same time. Today, that’s probably more on the slight side, given there’s more of an emphasis on speed. Would you say that makes people more inclined or receptive to Strand’s work now, or they should be?

PB: I think we’re at a moment in contemporary art when it seems to me that it’s good to reassess Strand’s later work because a lot of artists are interested in the documentary tradition in photography. A generation ago, Strand’s move away from avant-garde modernism seemed perplexing, at best. And I think today if you think of a figure like Allan Sekula or Susan Meiselas or any number of people, Strand’s turn to a kind of social seeing—that also has a political dimension in that he shows the politics of a place—has a lot of resonance.

AP: Even though at the same time, he never saw his work as photojournalism. How do you reconcile that with his work being a document in that way?

PB: He was clear that his work was not documentary, and, specifically, that it was not photojournalism. He said that making clear his admiration for photojournalism and the high value he placed on it. But it was clear to him that his mode of working was very different than what was required of photojournalism. One way that he put it is that he liked to work slower than that, which was indeed true. If you look back to the 30s and 40s when he was trying to make political art, specifically in his films, one of the painful lessons for him was his approach to working, which he would not let go of because he understood it was integral to his success. He took a long time, both with ideas and with individual pictures, and that’s not really suited to making politicized art.

AP: Then there are also those photographs of his wife, Hazel, taking photographs of him staging the photograph a bit more than one would in a real document.

PB: What’s important about those photographs by Hazel is that he was never secretive about that staging. He saw no reason to be disingenuous about that; he saw it as contradictory to the way he was presenting his work. I think the reception of his work—because we have this go-to idea that we fall back on about “straight” photography, which sometimes gets conflated with how people think of street photography—is that he’s “finding” these moments. But he was really clear that he was making complicated representations of whatever subject he had chosen.

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Blind Woman, New York, 1916 © 2014 Paul Strand Archive/Aperture Foundation, Inc.

AP: You mentioned his politics. They’re sublimated in some places and more prominent in others—you talk about in the end of the essay, how it’s kind of convoluted as he’s wavering between leftist optimism, with absolute belief in certain opinions and some conflicting views. What’s your takeaway on his politics?

PB: I have a couple takeaways. Strand was very politically engaged from the 1930s onward. It was clear to him that his political views were distinct from his art. That goes back to what I said earlier: he realized he wasn’t really cut out to be a political artist in the way that John Heartfield was or someone like that. He didn’t want his photographs to be seen as illustrations of his political ideas. A lot of people have a hard time with that, even in reviews of this exhibition. Because he was such a man of the left, people are really stuck on the idea that he was making his photographic projects with a kind of vague yet central political idea. He really wanted to move away from that.

It’s sort of unfortunate because he becomes very reticent about these matters in late interviews in his life. A lot of people have taken that to mean that because of the political climate of the moment, he didn’t really want to talk about it. But I see it as that he wasn’t worried about his politics being discussed: he was worried about his art being discussed as political.

Strand may or may not have been a clear political thinker. When he’s making his art, he’s making it as a reader of literature and poetry. He had strong political commitments that, in my view, were not welded to a certain political party. I think it’s inaccurate to say that Strand is a communist or he’s a socialist. He was on the left and he embraced a wide range of left ideas. That’s about as precise as we can get about his political views. He was absolutely sympathetic to communism, there’s no question, but to say that and leave it at that confuses the matter. I think the way he would have explained it, although he never did, is that his choice of subjects was of course influenced by his worldview and his politics, but his art was about a broader set of issues.

AP: I wonder where in the exhibition, getting this bigger picture of his work, that might be clearer now.

PB: The way I look at his later projects is that he’s more interested in issues of time and history, and certainly the contemporary moment. For instance, in the New England work, I think he’s really interested in American democracy when he makes those pictures, but he’s thinking of American democracy from the beginning until the current moment of the 1940s. His projects in France and Luzzara are very much about the contemporary moment in Europe right after World War II. But in the France work as with New England he looks back to the history of the country, whereas in Luzzara he’s resolutely in the moment of 1953. The heart of these projects, for me, ends up being more about everyday life than about his political views. I don’t want to completely unwind them from each other, because his politics are there, but I don’t think they are the driving force of his ideas.

AP: They are also very poetic. You mentioned that interest as well, in the book, with his use of literature as both in collaborations with Claude Roy and as source material from poets like Whitman– what do you think led to that connection so often? Poetry specifically.

PB: There’s also the folk music traditions of the Hebrides islands [in Scotland] which sparked his interest in going there to some degree. He heard a BBC radio program produced by Alan Lomax about folk music, specifically Gaelic folk songs, in the Hebrides that Lomax had recorded. Strand is interested in the survival of this tradition but he’s much more interested in the broad contemporary moment of these people who live at an extreme edge of Western Europe. So his interest in poetry and music and folk culture is a part of that. In that case, it was an immediate event: he heard the program and wanted to go there.

In other cases, his interest in literature or a certain writer develops for a long time. In Luzzarra in 1953, he finally realizes this long ambition to make a work of art about a single village. This comes from early-twentieth-century American literature, people like Sherwood Anderson or Edgar Lee Masters, where they had fictional works that revolve around the voices of different people in a town. The other thing is that Strand was excited by the aesthetics and the ethics of neorealist cinema and filmmakers in Italy, some of whom were also interested in the same American literary models. So Strand has been thinking for a long time that he’d like to make a work of art about a single village, and then he becomes somewhat close to a group of the neorealists who are making the now celebrated films in Italy. Their aesthetic and sensibility about what they wanted these films to do, which was to speak to a broad and contemporary audience very directly, were perfectly in line with what Strand wanted for his photographs. It’s hard to unravel this question because every time Strand uses a literary model he uses it for different reasons and it merges with what is going on specifically in a given project. But it’s true if you look at his books that many of them do include poetry—in fact, maybe all of them, except Luzzarra, have poems as part of the text.

Collaborating was really important to Strand for his books. He would produce the photographs and then collaborate with a writer who either wrote or selected texts for the book. He saw the two things as very distinct, but I’m sure that he and each writer he worked with influenced each other a lot, in terms of selections of images and texts.

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Paul Strand, White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916 (negative); 1945 (print). © Paul Strand Archive/Aperture Foundation

I want to say one thing that goes back to your first question. One thing I love about the exhibition is that you can really trace one of the core things about Strand, which is the importance of place and photography’s special ability to record details of time and place. His later work is all about that, what he would call these “portraits of places” where he spends a lot of time and goes in depth to a very deep representation of places that, I think, he always thought of as modern, even if they don’t always look modern in the way that we use the term. If you go back to the beginning of his work, even as early as his Cubist abstractions in 1916, which he made in Connecticut, you see his attention to the details of place. You see it in those abstractions: you see it in the picture White Fence, Port Kent, which was made that same year. He even said later that the picture was the beginning of New England for him.

Then you see it again when he goes to Maine in the summers of 1927 and ’28. It’s pretty clear that he was making those photographs as individual nature studies. I think his idea was to use a very sophisticated and modern machine, his camera, to make pictures of organic and natural subjects, because those were the two elements that he felt had to be in a photographic work of art at the moment. In interviews many years later, he says that looking at those pictures from Maine from those two summers, he realized that they gave a specificity of place, about the coast of Maine for instance, so that you knew you were looking at things that really described that place specifically. It’s a very slow process for him. He’s always interested in this ability to describe place, but he gradually figures out the layered ways that photography does that. By the time that you get to his photobooks, starting with Time in New England, he has a really sophisticated approach to time and place.

AP: Right, and I did want to briefly talk about Mexico as a turning point as well, which was a place where portraiture comes more into Strand’s work and continues into his New England project.

PB: Mexico is really crucial, but I see it as a transitional moment, as I see all of the ’20s and early ’30s as transitional for Strand. He’s making incredible work where he is figuring out what he wants the camera to do: he is incredibly ambitious for photography as an art form, and he wants it to match the achievements of painting. Mexico is a crucible moment for multiple reasons. Things in his personal life have shifted drastically: he hasn’t broken from Stieglitz, but they have come to a very cordial parting of the ways, his marriage to Rebecca fails, and he’s very upset about the Great Depression. It’s clear from reading his letters that, while he was always a man of the left, this is the historical moment when he becomes much more politicized because of the economic inequities that are exposed by the Depression. He’s thinking about all of this while in Mexico, and I think if you look at his street portraits from 1916, that when he resumes portraiture in Mexico that he is going back to that work from 1916. He hadn’t tried to make pictures like that for more than fifteen years, in part because that mode of working was so uncomfortable for him. He was a very methodical artist—we’ve already talked about his deliberate staging—and he couldn’t do that with anonymous focused portraiture.

I see the Mexico portraits as a return to this body of work that he felt was very important and powerful from 1916, although he has a much more sophisticated way of making those pictures in Mexico. In my interpretation he’s much more politicized at this time in his way of thinking and is thinking about the social or economic differences between himself and his subjects, possibly. Where Strand always gets with his portraiture, even in 1916, is that he focuses so intently on details—on people’s expressions, their postures, their clothing—that he brings you right through social documentary to grappling with these subjects as individuals. That’s a very powerful factor of his portraiture from the beginning to the end, and that’s one way that you see how politics aren’t as central as some critics will have it. He has a way of making these portraits that makes you think of these people as ones with histories of their own, which have people shaped by historical events.

AP: Anything else you’d like to add?

PB: I think earlier exhibitions of his work have sometimes been guilty of evading his political views because they are controversial or because curators don’t know what to do with them. Our approach has been to foreground his political views to the extent that they are a part of the story of who Strand was and how he approached the world. But I think political art didn’t work perfectly for him. His way of working was too methodical and slow and had too many layers of literary meaning and narrative that take you outside of politics.

We want the exhibition to be very candid about Strand’s politics. We want his political views, as far as we know them and understand them, to be clear because they did inform his worldview. But I would insist that his later projects are not illustrations of his political ideas: they are much more complicated than that.

Paul Strand – Photography and Film  for the 20th Century runs through May 17 at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Zurich, Switzerland. 

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