This was an OCA study visit led by Rob Bloomfield, there were 12 of us there. There was no photography allowed in the exhibition.
The first thing that struck me, before even seeing a single photograph, was the smell. You enter the exhibition through a small tall foyer of dark wood and it smells of rich dark forests and old furniture. Somehow this smell stayed with me through the Ikea-style sequence of linked rooms, reinforced by the occasional panel of the same wood and the blacker-than-black blacks of Paul Strand’s images. I appreciate that this is almost certainly a structural feature of the V&A rather than anything installed specifically for the show, but it definitely added something for me and means that his images are now linked to a smell in my memories. I liked the layout of the exhibition, despite the meandering route it dictated, and I liked the unexpected views of security guards framed by the peepholes between rooms. There was a real sense of continuity, of wondering what would come next.
Paul Strand took photographs for almost 70 years through most of the entire 20th century. I got the feeling that in his early career he was “trying things out” under the guidance of his mentor Alfred Stieglitz. Although many of his motifs recur throughout his work (nature, communities, people portraits), others such as pictorialism, cubism and street photography (with a false lens) seem to have been tried and then discarded. He was also a film-maker, which helped to fund his photographic work. All of the work shown was in black and white.
He became a committed socialist, keen to use his photographic and film talents to improve relationships and the world. You could almost feel the disappointment when he cancelled a project to create a book in Rumania because the authorities gave him a script to follow. I think he must have been a very principled man, according to this review in the Telegraph (Hudson, 2016) he also cancelled plans for a final Ghana book when he learned that a referendum had been rigged. The information boards told us that from 1945 to the end of his life, his choice of place “was politically motivated. Strand selected locations where regional identity was being impacted by global modernity…. Conceived as portraits, the series explore time and history and the particular qualities of a place and its people.” By contrast, South Uist in the Hebrides was selected as “a community presenting an alternative to the self-destructive modern world”.
I found that his images carried a huge amount of context. Environmental portraits with sometimes next to no environment visible, his subjects seemed to carry their environments in their faces, their clothes, their body language; particularly in the Hebridean images. For someone who’s still trying to get the in-photo/out-of-photo context balance just right, it was a revelation. I loved the portrait of little Katie Margaret Mackenzie, bundled up from the cold with her steady gaze looking back at me. You could look at her tweed coat, with its slightly wonky hem, and be pretty sure that it was hand-made from locally-made tweed, look at her mittens and again be pretty sure that they were knitted by a relative from locally sourced yarn. In that era, in the Hebrides, they are unlikely to have come from anywhere else. So I found the portrait to show not just a person, but a lifestyle, an indication of the cold environment, and resonant of the love that drives you to knit mittens and sew wonky hems so that your children won’t be cold. Another striking portrait shows a woman in a hairnet, whilst you listen to recordings of her singing. You can see the wear of the environment in her face, but somehow also that beautiful glow and softness from a life lived outdoors, away from the city. (Note, for anyone who is interested Wordery.com has a new print of Tir A Muhrain available for pre-order).
Two other portraits of women stayed with me. One of his first wife, Rebecca Salsbury, an intimate study of her neck and ear as she lay with her eyes closed in 1922. I thought this was tremendously intimate, and that it said something about him. On the whole the work shown is not erotic or romantic and this looked like a little bit of personal sentiment that had sneaked into the selection. On the other hand, as the captioning pointed out, Strand also adored his new film camera and took exactly the same approach and care to photographing that as well. A nearby image shows a matt dark camera with a delicate satin metal butterfly nut lightly perched on it like a kiss. It turned out that the love affair with his new camera lasted longer that the love affair with his first wife.
Another was from his street image days, showing a heavily-built and florid woman yawning, the wide curves of her mouth echoed by something behind her, possibly a light. It’s not what would be considered to be a flattering image and does not carry the quiet dignity of his other portraits, but equally there is no tone of mocking either. There is no denying the strength of character that is conveyed, nor the sentiment that her life has probably been a hard one. Surprisingly this reminded me of Bruce Gilden’s work, if you took this image in colour and enlarged it there would be strong similarities. This also made me consider that Gilden’s images are also context-rich.
An image that he took the sculptor Gaston Lachaise somehow reminded me of sculpted marble in the way that the light fell on the folds of Gaston’s white shirt (this image does not really do it justice, (Masters of photography: Paul Strand, no date)). I thought that was very clever.
I’ll finish with one other image that struck me. It was a still life from a South Uist kitchen, stacked vertically. There was a dog bowl on the floor, under a stove on which were a collection of pans, and a mantelpiece above the fireplace (behind) had a symmetrical collection of ornaments, flanked by two china dogs. It made me think of coming in from the cold and drinking tea, a collie at my feet.
Nearly 1000 words later there is still much that I haven’t touched on. I will be reading more about Strand and I look forward to receiving the new print of his Hebrides book. Many thanks to the OCA for organising, Rob for leading and all the other students for the great company and discussion.
Hudson, M. (2016) Paul Strand, V&A, review: ‘A moving experience’. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/paul-strand-at-the-va-review-a-moving-experience/ (Accessed: 3 July 2016).
Masters of photography: Paul Strand (no date) Available at: http://www.masters-of-photography.com/S/strand/strand_gaston_lachaise_full.html (Accessed: 3 July 2016).