This is the first exhibition to show the complete holdings of the photographs of Paul Strand (New York, 1890−Orgeval, France, 1976) acquired by Fundación MAPFRE between 2011 and 2015, the largest existing collection outside the United States. The 131 images on display trace the milestones in the New York artist’s career from his beginnings in his native city and his travels around many parts of the Americas, Europe and Africa to his final years in the French countryside. A key, pioneering figure in the history of modern photography, Strand always maintained his intense, straightforward approach to the landscapes and portraits that account for much of his oeuvre, photographs that engage the spectator with their perfect composition and their pure beauty.
Strand trained at the Ethical Culture School in New York, where he was taught by photographer Lewis Hine. He continued to be exposed to art through his close friendship with Alfred Stieglitz, which brought him into contact with avant-garde artists. Within a short time, Strand went from being a spectator to a fully-fledged creator who used angle and light to emphasise the forms in his more abstract compositions and the streets and buildings in his city views.
During the 1910s and 1920s, he developed an approach that enabled him to create groundbreaking photographs in which he experimented with geometry and portrayed architecture, objects, landscapes and plants from unusual viewpoints. He likewise took on social photography projects, introducing a documentary aspect and a basis grounded in everyday experience that would be an essential feature of twentieth-century urban photography. Blind Woman, from a series of portraits made in 1916, became an icon of his oeuvre and of photography in general when Alfred Stieglitz showed it in his gallery 291 and published it in the last issue of the magazine Camera Work. Strand had laid the foundations for modern photography and was a forerunner of what became known as Straight Photography or Pure Photography in the late 1920s.
Strand made his cinema début in 1921 when he teamed up with painter and photographer Charles Sheeler to shoot one of the pioneering avant-garde films: Manhatta, inspired by poems by Walt Whitman.
Mature period between the Americas and Europe (1930−1955)
During the 1930s, Strand’s political activism led him to Mexico, where he took the photographs that are compiled in The Mexican Porfolio, published in 1940. Objects related to folk culture appear alongside portraits for the first time in his photogravures of Mexico, seeking a spiritual connection between peoples and their land, a leitmotiv of his subsequent production.
In 1945, the MoMA in New York staged a retrospective of Strand’s work, the largest show the museum had ever devoted to a photographer. The success of this exhibition gave rise to a project on New England during the following years, which resulted in his first photography book, Time in New England (1950). The book stresses the importance of history and place and photography’s ability to express them through their constituent elements: buildings, landscapes, people and details that are interconnected and refer explicitly to the history to be told. Nature is powerfully present in this project, which became a reference for future work. Strand aspired to portray a community or people in the broadest sense, and during the following years he put this artistic and intellectual idea into practice in projects carried out in various countries and with different cultures, which also materialised in book form.
Following the end of the Second World War and the advent of anti-communist McCarthyism, Strand left the United States voluntarily in 1949 and took up residence in France. In Europe he became increasingly interested in social themes and brought out a number of publications in which the photographs tell a story in a similar way to films. They were the result of his photographic campaigns of the 1950s in communities in France (La France de profil, 1952, an endearing tale about his adoptive country), Italy (Un Paese, 1955, centring on the village of Luzzara) and the Outer Hebrides (Tir a’Mhurain, 1962, about the island of South Uist).
Final years between Africa and his French retreat (1955−1976)
In 1955, Paul Strand and his third wife, Hazel Kingsbury, bought their first house, ‘La Briardière’, in Orgeval, a village west of Paris. This home with its extensive garden and its orchard became a miniature paradise, a retreat where he could lose himself in thought and experiment with photography between his constant trips. It was also the subject of one of his last publishing projects, which he left unfinished.
Beginning in the mid-1950s and throughout the 1960s, Strand travelled around Romania, Morocco, Egypt and Ghana (1963−1964). These last two countries were the subjects of new publications (Living Egypt, 1969 and Ghana. An African Portrait, 1976) that fall outside the Eurocentric vision of the period. His unique approach to the reality of people and places – a sign of his ethical and social commitment – is associated with the new schools of thought, such as humanism, that emerged during the post-war period, lending visibility to other cultures and ways of life.
Following his photographic trips abroad, he always returned to Orgeval, where he set up his first darkroom and prepared books, exhibitions and portfolios, as well as receiving many friends and collaborators. He also carried on with his studies of nature, which he had begun in the 1920s in the United States and continued until the end of his life. They marked two decades of personal work with no preconceived plan: these photographs, which show the same straightforward approach and precise gaze that characterise his entire oeuvre, were made for his own enjoyment in an attempt to find a meaning in small details, discover unexpected revelations and capture moments of domestic bliss.
Summing up more than half a century of creative searching, the artist stated in 1976, shortly before his death: ‘I think of myself as an explorer who has spent his life on a long voyage of discovery’.