Paul Strand-Photographer and Film-maker at the V&A is the first UK retrospective on the American photographer Paul Strand in over 40 years, with the V&A’s own recent acquisition of nine rare photographs from the pioneering photographer’s only UK-based series included in the exhibition.
On until 3rd July 2016
These pictures were taken in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland and document the threat to traditional Gaelic life during the Cold War years. These exquisite black and white vintage prints were originally made for Strand’s photo-book Tir A’Mhurain (Land of Bent Grass). The V&A is home to the oldest museum photography collection in the world, so it seems fitting that they should have acquired these images from such an influential figure.
Strand defined the way fine art and documentary photography is understood and practiced today through his revolutionary experiments with the medium. A committed Marxist, Strand fled McCarthyism in the US in 1950, pursued by the FBI. He settled in France, and carried out work there and in Italy before arriving on the Hebridean island of South Uist in the mid 1950’s. It is his photographic ‘second-wind’ that he gained from his European move that the exhibition seeks to document. This being said, however, it does span his career, right up to his last images from 1976 and also includes some films, although Strand ultimately abandoned film-making in the late 1940’s.
Paul Strand, born in 1890, is an important figure in the history of photography not only because his career spanned much of the 20th century, but because he relentlessly trialled and pioneered myriad photographic approaches, subjects and technologies. Ironically, it was his variety and failure to coin a signature style that has seen him increasingly overlooked in the 40 years since his death. Strand worked with a large format camera; his style was slow, deliberate and he was known for not talking to his subjects much. This being said, he was able to make some of the first street portraits, often using a decoy lens to fool the subjects he wasn’t capturing them!
In 1954, inspired by a BBC radio programme on Gaelic song and the news that the island would become home to a testing range for America’s new nuclear missile, Strand raced to capture the sights, sounds and textures of the place steeped in the Gaelic language, fishing and agricultural life of pre-industrial times. On the opening day of the exhibition we were lucky enough to meet two of the subjects of Strand’s lens from the South Uist series, John and Jean MacLellan. John, recalling the time when they were Strand’s subjects said ‘…I know so many people in the photographs, it’s wonderful to be able to look at them now and the place I used to call home.’
This superb exhibitions allows us all to enjoy these pictures as well as the whole variety of his work. It is this varied and uneven approach, that makes him so interesting, the sheer diversity is so stimulating. The constant is, of course, his eye for composition, over all his subjects, that made my heart sing. Finding so much stark beauty in the everyday, be it a landscape, still life, city street or portrait is a rare thing indeed.
Man about town.