The Paul Strand exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a big deal in many ways. The exhibit, which opened October 21, 2014 and runs through January 4, 2015, includes 2 films and over 250 photographs. It also includes archival prints, negatives, and books — plus works by related contemporaries.
If not the definitive Strand retrospective, it is the most comprehensive. It draws on the museum’s collection of over 4000 works and supplements it with borrowed items. It includes photos and paintings from his cohort — Stieglitz, O’Keeffe, Dove and Marin. Organized chronologically, it covers Strand from tentative beginnings to final master strokes.
Like Picasso, Strand was a chameleon whose “style” shifted over time. He began as a pictorialist, explored abstraction, and settled on realism. Like his mentor, Lewis Hines, he pursued social and political themes. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he made a good living doing what he liked. And unlike most still photographers, he also made films. In fact, for a time, he was best known for his films.
An American who emigrated to France during the McCarthy era, Strand traveled widely. The exhibit includes photos and photo essays from New England, France, Mexico, Italy, the Hebrides, Egypt, Morocco, Ghana, and Romania. Strand packaged several of the photo essays as profitable books focused on town and village life.
No matter the venue, Strand’s powerful and sometimes raw street photography and candid portraits demand attention. No surprise. Ditto his early pictorialist forays a la Stieglitz. Stieglitz memorialized Georgia O’Keeffe (and Rebecca) and Strand did Rebecca Strand (and Georgia).
What surprised were the close-ups of nature (rocks, plants, flowers) and machinery. Also surprising were the quasi-abstract photos. “Quasi-abstract” because the staircases, building parts and still life objects are recognizable. But Strand was looking at their shape and arrangement, not their function. We liked his 1915 abstract “Jug and Fruit,” which we snapped with our smartphone.
Bring your walking shoes and allow plenty of time, two hours or more. This is a big exhibit, but well-curated. It’s all about Strand and not about the museum, its sponsors, or the curators’ theses or next book projects. Hooray!
Just one gripe. And it’s not about the Strand exhibit, but about photographic exhibits in general. Many of the photographs in this exhibit are old. Some, like the iconic “Wall Street,” are old enough to qualify as antiques. No wonder this platinum palladium print and others in this show are dark and dingy. What we see is not what Strand saw or intended.
We clean, restore and repair other works of art, from medieval frescoes to paintings by the great Masters. Why not photos? Show “Wall Street” in its present condition. But show it side-by-side with a digitally refreshed rendition. Show us the Wall Street Strand saw and chose to immortalize. Or something like it.