Paul Strand created an influential body of work that has had an impact on masters as diverse as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Walker Evans.
As a young photographer, Strand mastered the ethereal landscapes and gauzy portraiture of Pictorialism, the self-consciously artistic photo style of New York salons at the turn of the century. By 1916, though, when he was in his 20s, Strand had grown restless with Pictorialist sentimentality and was searching for new expression with the camera.
Strand removed the downy atmospherics from his pictures, and, influenced by Cezanne and Picasso, introduced the flat design and vigorous energy of Cubism into photography. By the time his experiments were through, he had not only found a bold artistic voice for himself, but he had also ushered photography into the modern era.
How he made his way to Modernism is the subject of "Paul Strand, Circa 1916," a small but brilliant exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 15. (It was recently at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.) In several dozen prints, the exhibition shows us the then-unknown photographer, like some rare orchid seen under time-lapse photography, blossoming into artistic power and significance.
Strand was the product of two photographic giants, Lewis Hine and Alfred Stieglitz. Aesthetically, the two men represented nearly opposite influences. Hine, who taught Strand photography in high school, was a social reformer who chronicled Ellis Island immigrants and child laborers. Stieglitz ran the legendary Fifth Avenue gallery 291 and published the journal Camera Work; in both, he championed intellectualism and the European avant-garde art.
Strand came under the influence of Stieglitz in 1914. Though the older man had been the leading champion of Pictorialism a decade before, by the time the two met he had rejected its simplifications and challenged Strand to observe the world more closely.
Strand sharpened the focus of his glass-plate camera and began pointing it at the street life of New York. …