4. Rear Windows: Strand’s Backyards

In 1916, the same year that Paul Strand made his remarkable studies of lower-class types caught unawares by a disguised camera lens, he moved away from New York’s crowded streets to capture backyards visible from a bird’s-eye perspective.

Paul Strand, New York, 1916, Vintage photogravure from Camera Work 48

Paul Strand, New York, 1916, Vintage photogravure from Camera Work 48, 1916

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3. The Politics of Urban Planning: Strand at Midtown

The same year that Strand shot City Hall Park he took another, somewhat similar picture in a second prominent location, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York. Still perched above his subject but physically closer than he was in the courthouse north of City Hall Park, Strand was shooting from the second-floor window of Marius de Zayas’s Modern Gallery at 500 Fifth Avenue. The building is now gone, but from photographs it seems that he had to be behind a window (was it opened?) using a lens that radically compressed the width of Fifth Avenue and brought him nearer street traffic while catching a bit of a unfocused cornice in the lower left. Read More »

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2. Reading Strand’s New York Photographs: City Hall Park

In my last post, I suggested that we should rethink how we might read “politics” into the works of Paul Strand.  I put “politics” advisedly into quotes, because few photographs can translate specific political tenets or party lines into form. Apart from a unique photograph called “Skeleton and Swastika, Connecticut” contrived in 1938-39, Strand was no John Heartfield and never directly attacked scowling financiers or aggrandized noble workers in the fields in his still photographs. He remained above all an artist with a distinct social point of view, who recognized that the power to shift the public’s attention by forcing it to visually engage with the overlooked was his greatest gift.

Paul Strand: City Hall Park, New York, 1915 Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Paul Strand Retrospective Collection, gift of the artist, 1972-147-1

Paul Strand: City Hall Park, New York, 1915
Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Paul Strand Retrospective Collection, gift of the artist, 1972-147-1

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1. The Problematic Politics of Paul Strand

The recent retrospective exhibition of Paul Strand’s photographs, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to celebrate its purchase of more than 3000 prints and lantern slides from the Paul Strand Archive at the Aperture Foundation and coming to the Fotomuseum Winterthur in March, provides an ideal moment to think about Strand’s contribution and how he has been fashioned as a master of “modernist” photography (if not the slippery status of not-for-profit institutions that sell donated works to raise funds, perhaps the subject of another blog). More particularly, my interest derives from the ongoing debates about Strand’s politics and its importance to his work. At the heart of these debates, I would argue, are critical assumptions not only about what “political photography” looks like, but about how we have defined the winners and losers in our efforts to write a history of avant-garde, twentieth-century photography. Read More »

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V. Photography versus Contemporary Art: What’s Next?

We have reviewed several aspects of the highly competitive—even love/hate—relationship between contemporary art and photography. Is there anything left to say? Perhaps something about the future of both. They will hardly be able to avoid each other. Read More »

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IV. Photographers versus Contemporary Artists: Whose Crisis Is Deeper?

Photography and contemporary art are engaged in an entangled relationship with unresolved issues of power. Essentially, photography is one of art’s media, while art is one of photography’s applications. Exactly this is immersing both in an endless chicken-versus-egg causality dispute. Indeed, even if photography is obviously younger than art as such, contemporary art might still be younger than photography—it depends on what we define as the former’s beginning. Read More »

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III. Photography versus Contemporary Art: The Case of the Lecture Performance

There is less and less photography (and photographers) in contemporary art exhibitions, but more and more photographs. The photograph is a lens through which we see the contemporary world, which comes to us always already reproduced. Almost every static image we see these days is technically a photograph, since even art critics rarely cross paths with original paintings. In a contemporary art context, photographs abound in “research installations” and archival displays of all sorts; they are shown as a sequence of slides; they appear as stills in films. But recently, they have even begun to star in performances—for instance, in the increasingly popular genre of “lecture performance.” Read More »

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II. Photographs versus Contemporary Art: Beyond the Pleasure Principle

I must apologize for the rather long silence, during which I have been traveling, meeting lots of people, while almost constantly in public, which has made it difficult to think, let alone to write. Actually, if I were producing a series of photographs rather than a blog, it would have been easy. I could have made thousands of them (even taking a selfie while giving a public speech—why not, it might have been considered cute!) and indeed post them on Instagram, as mentioned by my co-blogger Casey Smallwood, taking part in the “casual” art production so characteristic of our times. Read More »

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