Paul Strand is one of our own. He was born in New York in 1890 into the grand comfort of West End Avenue and grew up in a progressive, assimilated Jewish family. His aunt was a leader in the new kindergarten movement, his father changed the family name from Stranzky, and he was educated at the Ethical Culture School on Central Park West. Since Ethical Culture not only wanted its students to be nice but to be useful, they were taught to handle tools. Lewis Hine, the great documentarian, taught Strand how to use a camera and the basics of darkroom technique, and supervised his activities in the school's Camera Club. Craft, and an insistence on finding the good in people, are major features of "Toward a Deeper Understanding: Paul Strand at Work," an exhibition of 37 photographs at Pace/MacGill Gallery.
By and large, these are fine photographs and afford considerable pleasure, but the title of the exhibition seems inappropriate. The works date between 1943 and 1953 and are reiterations of earlier work: They in no way diminish our appreciation of Strand's accomplishments, but they hardly add to it.
Many decades before, Lewis Hine had taken the Ethical Culture School Camera Club downtown to visit Alfred Stieglitz's avant-garde art gallery, an encounter that led to the young Strand's becoming Stieglitz's protégé. As a consequence of this early encouragement, much of Strand's most memorable work was done before the World War I.
Through Stieglitz, Strand learned about the European modern art movement, which he absorbed and domesticated. Although he traveled, his best photographs tended to be those taken in New York City: stark pictures of the skyscraper canyons in which pedestrians are reduced to ciphers, pictures in which the familiar is rendered abstract by daring camera angles, daunting portraits of the city's poor seen with sharp-focused intensity. These inspired the next several generations of photographers, and are still seminal. By contrast, the pictures at Pace/MacGill are of rural sites, from the 1940s in New England, and from the 1950s in Italy and France. If they show "Paul Strand at Work," he just seems to be doing a job, not finding new uses for a camera.
Paul Strand was a man of the left. Although he denied ever having been a member of the Communist Party, he was close to many who were: He corresponded with his friend Alger Hiss until his death in 1976. And he is one of the indispensable people in the history of the Photo League, a quintessential New York institution that combined his love for photography with his kind of politics. He served on the League's Advisory Board, taught, judged contests, lectured, and organized. In 1947, Attorney General Tom Clark listed the Photo League and 79 other institutions and 11 schools as "either totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive."
The politics of the Photo League seem closer to the myopic idealism of Ethical Culture than to, say, the revolutionary violence of the Mexican photographer Tina Modotti, who was an actual accessory to murder, but they were at the heart of its culture. A syllabus used by the league printed a lecture by Strand in which he maintained that for photography to be true to itself it should be shaped by social forces. Given his roots in the Upper West Side, it is easy to understand Strand's bent toward the left, but he also said, "All good art is abstract in its structure," hardly a proscription for socialist realism. By the time he took the pictures at Pace/MacGill, the conflict between these two positions had evidently blunted his innovative edge. Or maybe political intimidation did it.
But Strand short of his best is still a considerable photographer. "Helen Benett, War Bride, Vermont" (1944) stands in her white wedding gown beside the black door to a house. She stands with her hands clasped in front of her, her long veil framing her dark hair. Her expression is set on the future, on her soldier returning and carrying her over the threshold. The wood siding and door are weathered; it is an old house. The threshold is a liminal position, separating her role as a bride in her ritual costume from that of woman in a consummated marriage in her home. She waits.
Many of the pictures from France and Italy are portraits of country types. These pictures are strong visually but not quite beyond ethnography. "M. Pelletier, Gondeville, Charente, France" (1951) wears a peaked cap and a vest. Strand's camera records the textures of his shirt and beard and the happenstance that his left eye is framed by his wire-rimmed glasses but his right eye is obscured by them. The picture is a handsome character study. So is "The Mayor's Mother, Luzzara, Italy," "Day Laborer, Luzzara, Italy," and "The Mother, Luzzara, Italy," all 1953.
"House, Auray, Morbihan, Brittany, France" (1950) is a characteristic picture of the details of a house. Seen from a distance, it is about geometry; seen up close, it is about textures. We sense the photographer's affinity for the worn, Old World cobblestones, fieldstones, timbers, plaster, lace curtains, and roof shingles. Paul Strand, the big city New Yorker, spent his last decades living in selfimposed exile in Europe, recording life in quaint villages. "Repair Shop, Luzzara, Italy" (1953) is a wall hung with tools — an abstract, two-dimensional composition of handsaws, pitchforks, hoes, and other implements for building and farming. Tools were something Ethical Culture had taught him to respect.
Until March 31 (32 E. 57th St., between Madison and Park avenues, 212-759-7999).