In 1917 Alfred Steiglitz was a giant in the world of photography. His "Steiglitz Circle" included artists like Arthur Dove, Paul Strand and Georgia O'Keefe, "all of whom believed in the expression of a modern art, one that was distinctly 'American,'" according to Anne M. Lyden, associate curator in the Getty Museum's department of photographs.
That same year, Steiglitz essentially tapped Paul Strand as the future of photography when he chose to feature only images by Strand in the final volume of his magazine, Camera Work. It would have been an honor for a photographer of any age. Strand was only about 27 at the time.
This week, the Getty Museum opens "Three Roads Taken: The Photographs of Paul Strand," which features more than 70 of the 186 Strand photographs in the museum's collection. The title is taken from a quotation by the photographer about the themes that carried him throughout his photographic career:
"Three important roads opened for me.... My work grew out of a response, first, to trying to understand the new developments in painting; second, a desire to express certain feelings I had about New York where I lived; third ... I wanted to see if I could photograph people without their being aware of the camera."
This quotation also marks the entry of the exhibit and serves as guide as we move through three galleries of Strand's images, set up chronologically. The works featured in "Three Roads" are some of the photographer's best-known, including his New York images of Wall Street and City Hall Park; portraits of his wife, Rebecca, of strangers on the street and in small American and foreign towns, and abstracts of machine parts or arranged still lifes. (The exhibit takes us through the first 40-some years of Strand's artistic career. The strength of the Getty's collection ends at about 1954, even though Strand continued to take pictures until his death in 1976.)
Strand was born in 1890 to left-wing Jewish parents who sent him to the Ethical Culture School in New York for high school.
Founded by philosopher Felix Adler, the school "placed a humanist emphasis on creative, critical and pragmatic approaches to learning," according to Lyden. The radical teachings Strand received there influenced his photography throughout his life, which we see most notably in his portraits of heroic everymen caught in a changing society.
At the Ethical Culture School, Strand also had his first formal instruction by celebrated photographer Lewis Hine, whose images were more obviously political, like his series on child labor that helped change American employment laws.
Strand's earliest works, which we see in the first gallery, reflect the experimentation of a young artist trying to find his niche. There is an early pictorialist image, a blurry emotional landscape that seems most removed from the direct and focused style for which Strand became known. A famous still life of pears and white bowls conjures Cezanne's style of painting, another example of Strand's desire "to understand the new developments in painting," and how to adapt them to photography.
Strand's "second road," his "desire to express certain feelings I had about New York where I lived," is apparent in the exhibit's striking images of Manhattan.
Alongside the quote posted at the entry is Strand's "City Hall Park, New York," image. The picture works on multiple levels: Silhouettes of New Yorkers walking in every direction evoke the movement of the bustling city; the extreme rectangular shape of the photograph, which has been cropped, is reminiscent of a Japanese scroll, and the aerial view reveals the city's vertical growth.
Lastly, Strand's third "road," "to see if I could photograph people without their being aware of the camera," informs the exhibit's portraiture.
"In the beginning he went to these measures to record people unaware," Lyden said.
But eventually Strand stopped fitting his camera with false lenses and photographed people straight on. As his experience grew, Strand was able to get "the objectivity he desired by engaging with the sitter," Lyden said.
Viewing an early image in the first gallery of a blind woman on the streets of New York (in which we can view her, but she cannot see us) in contrast with the much later image, "Tailor's Apprentice," (in which she looks candidly straight into the camera) we see how Strand's mastery of portraiture developed.
The end of the Getty's exhibit and collection coincides with Strand's exile to Europe in 1950, and the rise of McCarthyism. As Strand aged, his politics became more radical just as American politics were becoming more conservative, and Strand remained in Europe until his death in 1976.
But Strand's politics did not preclude his patriotism, apparent in many of his works, including his book, "Time in New England." The photographic study of New England was meant to capture "the spirit of New England which lives in all that is free, noble and courageous in America," he wrote in the preface.
"Three Roads Taken: The Photographs of Paul Strand" runs May 10-Sept. 4 at the Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 440-7330 or visit www.getty.edu.