Paul Strand Takes Philadelphia: A Review

(ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN MARCH 2015)

By JULIA HAND Campus Press Co-Editor and Columnist

The Philadelphia Museum of Art currently has an exhibit of the works of Paul Strand, a major figure in modern photography. I spent two consecutive days in the museum, each time spending a considerable amount of time in Strand’s exhibit.

From straight-forward shots of dilapidated city buildings to the worn face of a Ghanaian mother, Strand captures an honest perspective of the world around him. Strand’s works can be broken down into a number of different categories, but I will keep it simple by splitting it into still life and portrait.

Creates Patterns with Shadows  Still life art works by Strand are my least favorite, but only relative to his entire body of work. Photos like “Porch Shadows” play on the concept of shape and geometric abstraction by creating patterns with shadows onto a table that rests on its side. “Geometric Backyards” is a shot taken from a New York City apartment window of the tiny backyards where linens dry on clotheslines. The deliberate, restricted shape of each miniscule backyard leaves the viewer feeling the lack of freedom that comes with living in the cramped city.

When I think of a backyard, I generally think of an open, grassy, spacious area that doesn’t seem to have a definite or rigid end point. However, in this photograph, Strand highlights the feeling of isolation and confinement of the backyards by shooting from a high perspective, where the straight lines are obvious and seem endless as hints of identical neighboring backyards can be seen.

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 Strand’s Candid Portraits   The most interesting of Strand’s works are his portrait shots. The expressions on the faces of his subjects speak to the viewer without any need for verbal or additional visual explanation. Some candid shots gave such insight into the lives of those photographed that I sometimes felt as if I was catching them in a moment of vulnerability that I was not meant to see, the way you would feel if your eye caught someone dressing through a window. “Yawning Woman” is a photograph like this; a dirty, presumably working-class, exhausted woman is caught for a moment with her guard down midyawn. Her fatigue overrides all of her features, and her ragged, filthy clothing tell us all we need to know about the working and living conditions she deals with.

 Strand Features Photos of Wife   My favorite of the entire exhibit was Strand’s many photographs of his wife, Rebecca. He took closeups of her from different angles, as if he were trying to capture exactly what it was he adored about her. Some shots have her staring directly and intensely at the camera, and some almost hint eroticism depicting Rebecca with her face tilted, eyes closed, neck exposed. The most interesting thing about Strand’s photographs of Rebecca is the fact that she is a series in his works.

Strand Exhibit Insightful   Many of Strand’s subjects are all based on perception and are true to what they are alone. For example, the yawning woman says everything about the yawning woman, and little about Strand. However, shot after shot of Rebecca from different angles reflects Rebecca’s features and beauty, but also Strand’s own personal views on his wife. Over the years, the exhibit shows Rebecca aging because no matter where Strand goes (Ghana, Mexico, New York, etc.), and no matter who and what he sees, he always turns his camera back to her–she is his constant muse.

The Paul Strand exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was insightful and thought-provoking, I would recommend it to anyone who has a place in their heart for modern photography. Whether you’re looking for abstract, still life, portrait shots, or even silent films, Paul Strand has done it all, masterfully.

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