Regarding Paul Strand

I’m currently taking “The Intimate Portrait” a class taught at ICP by Jen Davis. One assignment was to select a photographer and make a 5-minute in-class presentation. Below is that presentation without the associated photographs. I don’t have the appropriate publication rights, so I couldn’t include the pictures.

I used several sources including this article written by Paul Strand for Seven Arts in 1917. Click for Seven Arts Article

Five Minutes on Paul Strand, focused on his series of portraits of his wife Rebecca:

Paul Strand  1890-1976 — a very long and distinguished career and he produced a great deal of work.
About  9-months ago, someone looking at my photographs said they thought it reminded them of Cylfford Still.  I was embarrassed that at that time I didn’t know this very important painter who was one of the critically important artists involved with what many believe to be the first truly American art movement – Abstract Expressionism.  I frankly don’t see a connection between Still’s work and mine, but in any case I started to read American art history with a particular focus on the 20th century.
Looking at this period of American art brought me to Charles Sheeler (1883-1965).
I got very excited about Sheeler’s work — in particular the fact that he was a filmmaker, a painter and a photographer.  And, while exploring Sheeler’s work and considering his ideas about Precisionism, I re-encountered Paul Strand.
Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand became close friends and collaborated on the first film shot by Paul Strand, Manhatta, considered by some historians as the first avant-garde film produced in the United States.



Strand first got involved with photography as a high school student at the EthicalCulturalSchool in New York City.  His influential teacher was Lewis Hine.


“While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.”

Lewis Hine introduced Strand to Alfred Stieglitz who greatly admired Strand’s work, which was published in the final edition of Camera Work in 1917.


Paul Strand’s “straight photographic” approach to abstract work is what first attracted me.   And, he continued to make ‘abstract’ work through out his life.


He continued a long relationship – a kind of mentor-disciple  relationship – with Stieglitz for many years.


“All good art is abstract in its structure.”




Strand is also recognized for having produced some great iconic images that we all should know.


And he made many portraits as he traveled through out the world.
In Strand’s large body of work, there is nothing like the series of portraits he did of his wife, Rebecca Salsbury Strand.


He shot well over 100 negatives of Rebecca between 1920, the year that they met, and 1932, the year before their divorce.
The pictures are relatively obscure, since Strand himself did not consider them particularly successful.



THREE SLIDESUltimately Strand chose not to exhibit or discuss the pictures of Rebecca.
He also apparently wanted to avoid the obvious comparison between these photographs and those of Georgia O’Keeffe by Stieglitz, his mentor.


Some think Strand, too was in love with O’Keeffe, but he functioned as a kind of intermediary for Stieglitz, encouraging her to move back from Texas to New York in 1918.


Stieglitz and O’Keeffe became very close, but it would be four years before he divorced and married O’Keeffe.


In any case, Strand, O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and Rebecca all became close friends.  And, Stieglitz photographed Rebecca when she spent several summers at his home in the Adirondacks in 1922 & 1923.


SEVERAL SLIDES – Rebecca by Stieglitz.We don’t know the depths of their relationship.


But Stieglitz later thought that some of these portraits of Rebecca were some of his finest work.



Strand had written to Stieglitz, complaining about how difficult it was for him to get the kind of insightful moments recorded in his portraits of Rebecca because of the required 2-4-minute exposures when shooting 8×10 portrait film.  Stieglitz sent him an “Iron Virgin” a devise used in 19th-century photography designed to hold one’s head still.


Strand also began to photograph Rebecca with her head down on a pillow, to mitigate the discomfort of the Iron Virgin.
As the relationship between Rebecca and Strand broke down in the early 1930’s the portraits became less intimate, more distant and objective.


After the series of Rebecca, Strand’s work evolved in the 1930’s and he never photographed again seeking the facets of an intimate relationship.


Rebecca remarried in 1939 and after a long illness with rheumatoid arthritis committed suicide in 1968.

“The artist’s world is limitless.  It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away.  It is always on his doorstep.”


A famous quote.



Harold Greengard, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, 1917

The spontaneous quality of this photograph—made a decade before the proliferation of the handheld camera and the snapshot—testifies to Strand’s skill in achieving the “living expression” he sought while revealing the natural ease between himself and his subject. The photograph also heralds the remarkable immediacy and naturalism of the candid portraits of New York street people he would make only a few months later.

Wikipedia: Precisionism was the first indigenous modern-art movement in the United States and an early American contribution to the rise of Modernism. The Precisionist style, which first emerged after World War I and was at the height of its popularity during the 1920s and early 1930s, celebrated the new American landscape of skyscrapers, bridges, and factories in a form that has also been called “Cubist-Realism.”[1] The term “Precisionism” was first coined in the mid-1920s, possibly by Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr.[2] Painters working in this style were also known as the “Immaculates,” which was the more commonly used term at the time.[3] The stiffness of both art-historical labels suggests the difficulties contemporary critics had in attempting to characterize these artists.

The movement’s concern with degrees of abstraction varies considerably. The Figure 5 in Gold (1928) by Charles Demuth, a clamorous hommage to William Carlos Williams’ imagist poem about a fire truck, is highly abstract, while the paintings of Charles Sheeler sometimes verge on a form of photorealism. (In addition to his meticulously detailed paintings likeRiver Rouge Plant and American Landscape, Sheeler, like his friend Paul Strand, also created sharp-focus photographs of factories and public buildings.[7]) The majority of Precisionist paintings and drawings, however, present no obstacles in identifying their imagery. Precisionist artists aimed to convey the geometric and psychological essence of a scene or a structure but intended that essence to be almost immediately accessible.

A primary source for this presentation was “Rebecca” by Paul Strand; © 1996 Robert Miller Gallery, New York City; © Aperture Foundation: Pictures & Text.

All text/quotes by Paul Strand:

The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep.
From: On My Doorstep.

The material of the artist lies not within himself nor in the fabrications of his imagination, but in the world around him. The element which gives life to the great Picassos and Cézannes, to the paintings of Van Gogh, is the relationship of the artist to content, to the truth of the real world. It is the way he sees this world and translates it into art that determines whether the work of art becomes a new and active force within reality, to widen and transform man’s experience.

All good art is abstract in its structure.

The existence of a medium, after all, is its absolute justification, if as so many seem to think, it needs one and all, comparison of potentialities is useless and irrelevant. Whether a watercolor is inferior to an oil or whether a drawing, an etching or a photograph is not as important as either is inconsequent. To have to despise something in order to respect something else is a sign of impotence. Let us rather accept joyously and with gratitude everything through which the spirit of man seeks to an ever fuller and more intense self-realization.

The photographer’s problem is to see clearly the limitations and at the same time the potential qualities of his medium, for it is precisely honesty, no less than intensity of vision, that is the prerequisite of a living expression. … The fullest realization is accomplished without tricks of process or manipulation through the use of straight photographic methods.

It is in the organization of this objectivity that the photographer’s point of view toward Life enters in, and where formal conception born of the emotions, the intellect, or of both, is as inevitably necessary for him, before an exposure is made, as for the painter, before he puts brush to canvas. The objects may be organized to express the causes of which they are the effects, or they may be used as abstract forms, to create an emotion unrelated to the objectivity as such. This organization is evolved either by movement of the camera in relation to the objectives themselves or through their actual arrangement, but here, as in everything, the expression is simply the measure of a vision, shallow or profound as the case may be.

It was always said that you really have to know a place before you start working in it; otherwise you would make something very superficial. Another shibboleth was that you can’t make a portrait of a person unless you know the person, and then when you know the person you create the moment of you wait for the moment when they are most alive and most themselves. These shibboleths went out the window … the impertinence lies really in trying to photograph the complexity of people, their environment, their land, in too short a time, but not when you start photographing.

The camera can hold in a unique way, a moment. If the moment be a living one for the photographer, that is, if it be significantly related to other moments in his experience, and he knows how to put that relativity info form, he may do with a machine what the human brain and hand, through the act of memory cannot do. So perceived, the whole concept of a portrait takes on a new meaning, that of a record of innumerable elusive and constantly changing states of being, manifested physically. This is as true of all objects as of the human object.

I like to photograph people with strength and dignity in their faces. Whatever life has done to them, it has never destroyed them.

There are no short cuts, no formulae, no rules except those of our own living. There is necessary, however, the sharpest kind of self-criticism, courage, and hard work. But first learn to photograph. That alone I find for myself is a problem without end.

I find in most cases that what the artist says about what he is going to do, or what he has done, is an inadequate and not very meaningful statement. The thing is the work itself, and in a sense the artist should not be asked for the philosophy of life upon which he bases his work. The work is the basis. The work is the thing itself.

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