Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century at the V&A

When it comes to photography, I have a very specific taste in what I enjoy looking at and what I generally consider to be just a picture. In my eyes, a good artistic photograph is one that comes from an interesting background with not only a story behind it, but an artistic idea, a life, and a concept too. Paul Strand is a man who managed it throughout his expansive career in the 20th century and this new exhibition that’s currently open at the Victoria & Albert Museum – called Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century – looks at just that. The exhibition is a timeline of Strand’s life and documents his interests and passions for different kinds of photography. As his life grows, you discover his motivations behind why he was fascinated by different ways to photograph for different reasons; the exhibition concludes with a photograph of Stand himself in his garden taken by his wife of the time.

Strand’s photograph Workers’ Bicycles taken in Luzzara, Italy in 1953
It’s normally easy when walking around an exhibition of photographs to pick out clear favourites and ignore the vast majority of them because you aren’t interested, but Strand’s work is quite different. As you begin to learn more and more about the man himself, your appreciation for his work grows rapidly and you can’t help but stand and stare at every single image for long periods of time. It’s presented in a way that’s inspiring too, with almost all of the photographs being housed in an identical frame but almost all of the images themselves measuring at different sizes. Strand is quoted half way through the exhibition for being fascinated by the idea of vast landscapes and expansive scenes being captured in tiny photographs for prosterity; the image above – which is called Workers’ Bicycles and comes from his book based in Luzzara – is about as big as an iPhone screen at the exhibition.
A photograph of a baby taken from Ghana: An African Portrait by Paul Strand (1977)
Strand’s passion for photographing people fueled me with inspiration as well. When he started off as a photographer in his hometown of New York City, he tried his best to photograph people without them knowing to catch their character off-guard. He quickly abandoned this passion for photographs of architecture until he married for the first time when he started to take purposeful pictures of people he loved (very interestingly, a film camera is one of these ‘people’ and the idea of treating an inanimate object with as much care as an actual person totally fascinates me). He struggled to capture their character though and he kept working on this through his life – from trips to France to trips to Italy – before creating his final book in Ghana, where the picture above was taken. It’s one of my favourites from the exhibit.
Young Boy taken by Strand in Charente, France (1951)
Whether you’re interested in photography, interested in humans and society, or neither of those at all, this is an exhibition that you’d be a fool to miss. It’s not only an exhibition that displays excellence when it comes to photography and film in the 20th Century, but it’s a display that offers a commentary on the world as a whole from a political and social perspective too. Paul Strand is clearly one of the most ingenious photographers of the past hundred years and his work survives beyond him as a testament to that. 

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