Exhibition at the Fondation HCB offers a new perspective on the work of Paul Strand
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Exhibition at the Fondation HCB offers a new perspective on the work of Paul Strand
Paul Strand, The Lusetti Family, Luzzara, Italy, 1953 © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive. Fundación MAPFRE Collections.

PARIS.- The Fondation HCB offers a new perspective on the work of American photographer Paul Strand (1890‑1976) from the collections of the Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid. While Strand is often celebrated as a pioneer of straight photography, this exhibition also addresses the deeply political dimension of his work.

“Opposites are cured by opposites,” goes the saying. American photographer Paul Strand (1890–1976) was heir to two great traditions in photography, often presented as opposed. He had a formalist approach that sought to prove photography an art, and a social approach, which saw photography as more of a documentary instrument serving political ends. Perhaps this is explained by the fact that Alfred Stieglitz and Lewis Hine, who occupy the two poles in photography history, were both Strand’s mentors in his formative years.

While in the mid-1910s Strand photographed faces of the people on the streets of New York, the first period of his work is especially marked by formalism. In 1917, when Stieglitz dedicated the latest issue of his famous magazine Camera Work to Strand, it was above all to show that photography had its own artistic language. Starting with a journey to Mexico City (1932-1934), then Moscow (1935), his approach became more political. He joined the American Labor Party and worked with more than twenty organizations classified “anti-American” during the McCarthy era, leading to his departure from the United States for France. Many of Strand’s choices were deliberated through this political conscience: his choice of subject, places he photographed, writers he worked with, the book as main vector for distributing his work.

In the past few decades, numerous exhibitions have been held on Strand focusing on his formalism. By no means minimizing this perspective, the current project seeks to recontextualize Strand, emphasizing the importance of his political commitments. Between formalist pursuits and social concerns, the two forces at work in his art are brought into balance here. If Strand often stands among the 20th century’s major photographers, it is precisely because he knew how to offer just equilibrium between the two poles.

The exhibition presents almost 120 prints from the collections of the Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid, the film Manhatta made by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler in 1921 as well as several prints lent by the Centre Pompidou.

Born in 1890 in New York, Paul Strand entered the New York Ethical Culture School (ECS) in 1907 where he studied under Lewis Hine, who introduced him to the Photo Secession gallery, founded by Alfred Stieglitz at 291 Fifth Avenue. Stieglitz had an important influence on Paul Strand's work from the beginning. In 1916, his work was published for the first time in Stieglitz's magazine, Camera Work, of which he was an avid reader, and then exhibited at 291 in the exhibition Photographs from New York and Other Places. During the war, Paul Strand worked as a hospital radiographer and, after his close-ups of machines, began to take an interest in surgical technique. In 1919 he travelled to Nova Scotia in Canada where he photographed his first landscapes and rock piles.

In 1921, Paul Strand made the film Manhatta with the photographer and painter Charles Sheeler. Between 1925 and 1932, various exhibitions of his work were shown in New York galleries. He travelled to Mexico from 1932 to 1934, during which time he had a solo exhibition at the Sala de Arte in Mexico City, was appointed Head of Film and Photography at the Mexican Secretariat of Education, and directed the film The Revolts of Alvarado (Redes) for the Mexican government.

Paul Strand travelled to the USSR in 1935, where he met Sergei Eisenstein. He then joined the Nykino group, around Leo Hurwitz, Ralph Steiner and Lionel Berman. Two years later, he became president of Frontier Film, a non-profit educational film production company, with former Nykino members.

In 1943, Paul Strand returned to photography after more than ten years in the film industry. In 1945, MoMA gave him a solo exhibition. From 1949 to 1957, the photographer undertook several trips to Europe, from which several books were written, and began an exile outside the United States, which coincided with the period of McCarthyism. He settled in Orgeval, France, where he remained until his death in 1976.

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