Paul Strand and the Birth of Modernism in Photography

Note: this is the second in a two-part series that begins with “The Possibilities of Expression”: Photographic Pictorialism

By LIZ HAGER

“The work is brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any ‘ism’; devoid of any attempt to mystify an ignorant public, including the photographers themselves. These photographs are a direct expression of today. We have reproduced them in all their brutality.”

—Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work, number 49/50, June 1917

Paul Strand—New York, 1917Paul Strand, New York,  published in Camera Work 1917, photogravure.

Alfred Stieglitz began publication of his second journal, Camera Work, in 1903. The first issue launched the Photo-Secession group. In the years between 1903 and 1910, Camera Work was the pre-eminent showcase for “pictorial” photographers, Photo-Secession members and other photographers who work emulated painting style. Beginning in 1910, Stieglitz devoted an increasing percentage of pages in the magazine to contemporary art.  The August, 1912 issue, for example,  was devoted solely to the painted and sculptural work of Matisse and Picasso.

Strand had been introduced to photography in high school; his first teacher was documentarian Lewis Hine and his mentor’s commitment to social improvement through photography can be felt in all of Strand’s work.  In 1907, the school’s camera club took a field trip to Stieglitz’s “291” gallery, where Strand fell decidedly under the spell of Photo Secession members Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, and Frederick H. Evans.

After 1913, Stieglitz published six final issues of Camera Work. He saw the potential of a young Paul Strand (1890-1976), but early on ironically criticized him for his soft focus, pictorialist approach. By 1915, Strand had had a break-through;  with New York City as his subject he created sharp-focus semi-abstractions and journalistic portraits of street people.  Rightfully impressed, Stieglitz devoted the final two issues (numbers 49/50) of Camera Work to this body of work. In Strand, he remarked that he had seen the photographic equivalent of Picasso’s abstraction.

Fascinated by the Cubists, Strand had experimented with greater abstraction in his compositions, gradually abandoning arecognizable picture plane and comprehensible subject matter.

Paul Strand, Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, silver gelatin print 1916, 12 15/16 x 9 5/8 in (photo ©1997 Aperture Foundation /Paul Strand Archive)

Photographs Strand made in the summer of 1916 are thought to be the first significant abstractions intentionally made with a camera. In the most abstract (above) the picture plane has been reduced to a series of flat interlocking shapes. Thus, forms alone, unattached to any pictorial reality, have become the photograph’s subject. Thus did photography take a step into the era of modernism.

A version of “Abstraction” apparently appeared in the last issue of Camera Work. (Unfortunately I can find no pictorial record of it.) Regardless, the Strand issues of Camera Work nailed the pictorialism coffin forever shut. Printed with a harsh strength on thicker paper and a more resonant ink, they were far removed from the delicate and ethereal reproductions of the earlier issues. The issue was Stieglitz’s treatise on future of photography.

Stieglitz rediscovered photography through Strand and, over the next few years, devoted himself again to his own work. The influence of Strand’s uncompromisingly direct style can be plainly seen this later work of Stieglitz. Although he occasionally thought of publishing further issues of Camera Work, it never happened.

Wider Connections

Photography Now—Paul Strand

Aperture—Paul Strand

Abstraction, Twin Lakes (alternate version)

Georgia on His Mind: Alfred Stieglitz & Georgia O’Keefe

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