Friday, July 6, 2012

Paul Strand's The Family

In the past I've hesitated to discuss the work of Paul Strand, because of the various difficulties one encounters in trying to define its divergent tendencies and probable meanings. Those who love Strand's work tend to forfeit any objectivity in defending its strengths, while seldom admitting its ambiguities and underlying rigid and sometimes even haughty presumptions. The significance of Strand's mature work grows out of a philosophical and political context that almost died out with World War II, and the subsequent embarrassment of Communism in Russia and China during the following decades. Had the fascist reaction of the 1930's and 1940's not occurred, it's interesting to speculate about how we would view Strand today, or any of the other Leftist artists entre les guerres. In the atmosphere of the prosperity of the post-war West, Strand's work takes on a certain idyllic, bourgeois charm, as if the social deprivations and dislocations--which are the raw matter (primitive indigenous cultures or war-ravaged landscapes) from which his major work is largely constructed--he chose to depict, were somehow symbolic, on the one hand, of an eternally repressed cultural guilt, or, on the other, of an adamantly retrogressive proletarian bitterness--like old Basque Separatists cleaning their rifles in closets at night.

The Family, Luzzara Italy 1953

The two primary strains of Strand's early work--formal, experimental Modernism, and social commentary documentation--are later joined in a unitive vision which employs powerful visual constructions to make broad political statements. During the 1930's, he concentrated on film, in an attempt to put his art at the service of progressive Left principles, reemerging in the early 1950's to create a series of "country" monographs, which explored the static documentary potentials he had earlier exploited with his film work on The Plow That Broke the Plains [1936], and Redes (aka: The Wave) [1936], Heart of Spain [1937], Native Land [1941]. These documentary books--Time in New England [1950], Un Paese [1955], La France de Profil [1952], Tir A'Mhurain [1962], Living Egypt [1969], and Ghana: An African Portrait [1976]--comprise a sort of comprehensive presentation--part social document, part artistic statement, part nostalgic retrospective--which Strand appears to have conceived as restatements of the same ideas he had expressed in the film work. Though the films had had a "public" side, Strand's own still image-work had been more personal, and experimental. But with Time in New England, the abstract studies and larger landscapes were united with portraits and indigenous folk pastoral, bundled and sequenced into coherent records of specific places, to offer direct evidence of the "unspoiled" or faux-"primitive" pre-modern, pre-industrial cultures--on the ground, un-self-conscious, honest, plain, basic.

The obvious difficulty in attempting to present documentary evidence of unspoiled culture is that you have to go "out of your way" to find it. Then, having found it, you have to present it in such a way that your very cosmopolitan, artificial aesthetic intentions don't distort the very qualities which you are trying to reveal. There is a balance between identifying these elements, and making from them positive, unpretentious tableaux. If you ask someone to "pose" against a building, especially people unfamiliar with the process of making compositions, there is the very real danger that their interest or fascination with the novel quality of the process may taint the result. His skill at making his subjects "behave" before the lens has been remarked, for instance, as just another aspect of his technical apparatus.

Each of the six "country" monographs--New England, Italy, France, Outer Hebrides, Egypt and Ghana--is a combination of broad landscapes, portraits (both posed and candid), and "telling" details, though often chosen as much for their pure artistic quality as for their relevance as thematic characteristics. In them, "local color" and touristic curiosity are melded with proletarian sympathy and celebration of riparian culture; and photographic skill and a straightforward no-nonsense approach are put at the service of a purposeful task, so that the personality of (Strand) the photographer is subsumed inside the higher calling of the "dignity" of the "common" man. But regional, ethnic and racial identities can end up being co-opted into a superimposed program, ultimately dictated by self-interest, in the same way that the United Nations is.

Is it possible to view a Strand portrait or group portrait, such as "The Family" above, either as pure organized composition, or as an indignant/dignified portrayal of subsistence/poverty and/or casual, relaxed daily life, uninfected by envy, suspicion or greed? Is it possible to see adult men, shoeless, probably unemployed, in conditions of deprivation, as colorful "primitives"--without our wanting or needing to think of the economic implications of their plight? Or does Strand intend that we should see them as both simultaneously, as beautiful victims of the incursions of the modern world's rapacity, or, conversely, as hold-outs, vestiges of an earlier, simpler bargain with necessity? Since the audience for Strand's monographs was clearly prosperous middle- and upper middle-class consumers, whose social conscience he was trying to invoke, the ironic tension between the complacent picturesque, and the militant subtext could hardly have been more obvious.

There is a temptation to set such considerations aside, and deal directly with Strand's mastery of his medium. Working with a 5x7 negative format--a sort of ideal compromise between the convenience of small formats, and the bulky, awkward scale of 8x10--Strand was able to achieve the print detail and tonal scale he sought, while not sacrificing the convenience and portability of a handy tool needed to move freely through an unfamiliar environment. How much preparation went into the construction of the scene above, in which six people, arranged artfully in differing attitudes of attention and apparent laxity, wait patiently for the photographer's work to be concluded. The scene seems so much a posed event, that it's impossible not to feel a sense of fabricated drama. Strand's work on the 30's social consciousness films seems to have been carried over directly into the monograph sequences. Might he have thought that his artistic sense--working to place objects and angles and tonal variance into an integrated whole--could be a sort of theatrical/cinematic director's control, as the auteur of successive images, like stills from a movie? This is a thematic thread that runs throughout each of the regional monographs.

"The Family" is certainly a "beautiful" formal construction. Balance and imbalance are perfectly interlocked. The dark doorway is set just to the left of center. The verticals of the doorway, lintel, stoop, exposed brick, and street-line, are contrasted against the eccentric angles of the limbs, the circle of the bicycle wheel, the man's hat. There is a sense of inclusion in which the whole grouping seems perfectly right; even if these six people are not directly related, though they may well be, we are not particularly curious about that. Which is more important?--that they seem united by a common circumstance, or that they somehow "belonged" in a photograph together? How, for instance, would a parallel group of Americans in a suburban neighborhood, appear to our eyes? Certainly, from Strand's point of view, this possibility was very immediate: Time in New England contains several posed portraits of people in their doorways or yards. It was precisely his point that our recognition of their honest rusticity links/ed them to each other, in the universal human theme of lives lived in direct connection to the earth, and to their need to live in the nobility and solemnity of their homely ordinariness.

These were qualities of aesthetic regard which were under fire during the McCarthy years. As those in the West chased the ever-receding mirage of economic prosperity and fake bourgeois respectability, older artists like Strand and Eugene Smith and Evans reminded them of the ambiguity of their position. "The Family"--like The Family of Man [1955], the famous exhibition curated by Steichen--is intended to glorify and epitomize an attitude that survives in our public imagination as a distant memory of hard times. Strand's work is journalistic and crusading in spirit, but the delicate fulcrum of its value is forever poised between vicarious sympathy--cheap in its simplest form--and a more informed recognition--that trying to believe in universal cooperation and common interest is ultimately a form of disrespect for difference and origins--the specificity of vernacular identity. The presumption of our Western notion of aesthetic picturesqueness is really nothing more than an extension of the old colonial paternalism of the pre-industrial era. To make a religion of class conflict and proletarian sympathy, superimposed upon little pockets of rustic provincial outback, is to mistake our motives of artistic condescension for compassion, and our pleasure in unspoiled places for good works. Visiting an isolate community, taking pictures of it, and then selling those pictures to the public, doesn't constitute an altruistic political act. Strand may have thought that what he was doing was somehow more dignified than just taking pictures of leaves in his garden, but in the end, its meaning is really the same.

In the movie Saving Private Ryan [1998, Dreamworks SKG], Spielberg--consciously or unconsciously--undoubtedly was aware of Strand's image, when he set up this shot towards the end of the movie, which occurs just minutes prior to the ultimate battle scene in a small French village. In France de Profil, Strand took pictures of the devastation of architecture caused by the War. In Spielberg's version, we see the historical record in purely aesthetic terms. The picture of four men, arranged conveniently and artistically against a partially demolished building, is pictorially inspiring and "pretty"--the tragedy and heroism of the men is like a footnote to the set-piece of their casual talk and nervous humor in anticipation of approaching terror. It's like the stage in a theater, the theater in this case, of war. 46 years separates Strand's and Spielberg's respective visions, and yet, the world they address and intended to portray is remarkably close--and based on some common themes. Strand's is art at the service of an officially discredited political end, one to which the larger society paid half-hearted homage; in Spielberg's, it's art in the service of as a debt to a dying commitment, a war now mostly consigned to fantasy.

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