paul strand: a lifetime of looking

From Wall Street to rural Romania and back again, Paul Strand shot something of the most shocking, beautiful, and touching pictures of the 20th Century.

by Matthew Whitehouse
Mar 17 2016, 4:26pm

The most striking thing about the V&A's Paul Strand retrospective is that it's the first in the UK for over 40 years. Strand (1890 - 1976) truly was one of the great photographers of the 20th century -- someone who influenced how we think about both fine art and documentary photography and, over the course of 60 years, successfully combined the two.

Organized chronologically -- beginning in the early decades of the century in his native New York and ending at the photographer's home in Orgreval, France in the 70s -- it is a body of work that commands attention. The retrospective spans from his early work as an experimenter, to the deep portraits of people and places around the world for which he is best remembered.

There's a wonderful truthfulness here (especially in Strand's early work, where subjects weren't always aware they were bring photographed), and while it's not always explicit, an underlying sense of compassion that speaks of his own personal, and increasingly socialist, politics. He was a great maker of prints -- there are some truly brilliant platinum and gelatine silver examples -- and his influence upon photographers such as Peter Lindbergh and Alasdair McLellan in the simplicity of the work (and elegant exhibition space) is clear.

The only criticism is that an exhibition of a photographer with such a wonderful understanding of a region's fabric coincides with V&A's current disruption of that very thing in Bradford, where 400,000 objects are set to move to a new "international photography resource center" at the museum. In the words of V&A's Senior Curator of Photographs, Martin Barnes, Strand spent "an entire lifetime looking." You get the impression he'd have wanted other to be able to do the same. 

Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France 1951 (negative); mid- to late 1960s (print) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Blind Woman, New York 1916 © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Wall Street, New York 1915 © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Couple, Rucăr, Romania 1967 © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Paul Strand (1890-1976) White Fence, Port Kent, New York 1916 (negative); 1945 (print) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Milly, John and Jean MacLellan, South Uist, Hebrides 1954 Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Paul Strand (1890-1976) The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis) 1953 © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Meeting, Sakumono, Ghana 1964 © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Martine Franck (1938-2012) Paul Strand Photographing the Orgeval Garden 1974 © Martine Franck / Magnum Photos

Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century is at the V&A from March 19 - July 3, 2016, supported by the American Friends of the V&A.

The international tour is organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in collaboration with Fundación MAPFRE and made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art.


Lede Image Paul Strand, Angus Peter MacIntyre, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Paul Strand
a lifetime of looking
photography and film for the 20th century