For some time, American photographer-film maker Paul Strand (1890-1976) has been ensconced in photography's pantheon, and for an almost equal amount of time now, I have been peering into the murky recesses of his work trying to figure out why.
Of course, an artist's position doesn't necessarily rest on work alone; circumstance, context and influence are a very real part of any reputation.
And Strand was in the right place at the right time: A prote'ge' of Alfred Stieglitz, the father of art photography, Strand cut through the mists of symbolist pictorialism with what many regard as the first modernist photographs -- "Wall Street" and the famous "Blind Woman" of 1916, precursors of "straight" photography, along with the abstract images of 1915, "Porch Shadows," and "Pear and Bowls," images that took their inspiration from Braque and Ce'zanne. There's good cause for the revisionist argument that the great documentary photographer Lewis Hine (Strand's teacher for a brief time) and the Frenchman Eugene Atget were the real fathers of modernist photography, but regardless, the work of Strand's youth is tangible evidence of a pivotal point in the history of photography.
Except for "Wall Street," the aforementioned photographs are all in the Library of Congress' "A Spirit of Place," an exhibition of 63 Strand photographs -- most of which are modern reprints by Richard Benson.
"A Spirit of Place," culled by curator Toby Quitslund from the library's excellent Strand collection, is actually several exhibits at once. As the title suggests, it is a survey of landscape photography (from the '20s through the '60s) made in Mexico, southern Italy, New England and Strand's adopted country, France. It's also an exploration of Strand's genre work -- for curiously, after his avant-garde youth, and after turning to film making for a while, Strand reemerged as a rock-ribbed conservative social realist.
There were two related genres Strand spent the rest of his life exploring: the pastoral landscape and portraits of the people who inhabit it -- peasants or small-town folk for the most part. Both genres have as their main ingredients the humanist virtues: the verities of the earth and the heroism of those who work it. In Strand's work these qualities are characterized by an earnest striving for universality expressed by the immobility of his subjects and the gloomy richness of his black-and-white printing.
Despite its relative brevity, "Spirit of Place" contains just about every landmark Strand photograph extant. There's the "Family" of Luzzaro, Italy, which shows five men, an old woman and a bicycle arranged in a tableau that recalls the orchestrations of Frances Benjamin Johnston. And there's the wan beauty of an Italian girl holding a straw hat in "Tailor's Apprentice," which inappropriately shares the grim tones of Strand's famous 1944 New England portrait of the elderly "Mr. Bennett."
The more exquisite -- and appropriate -- tonalities of the photogravure process animate the Mexican miniature landscape "Near Saltillo." And a pleasant discovery was a Strand photograph I had never seen before: a delicious image of grapes, "Charenty, 1951."
Despite these and other Strandian gems gleaming here and there in a sea of brown varnish, for me a real appreciation of Paul Strand's work remains a remote possibility.
"A Spirit of Place," located in the ground-floor gallery of the Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress, will be on view until April 27. Elizabeth Friedman at Gallery 10
Elizabeth Friedman's show of photographs at Gallery 10 is called "Fantasy and Illusion," but that title seems more revealing of her ambition than her accomplishment.
That said, let's acknowledge that there's more than the usual amount of effort and thought in this show -- almost 60 prints -- and more than the usual spirit in her diverse exploration of the various facets of the still-life genre. Well, three facets, anyway. One room of the gallery is devoted to abstract montages involving reflected jewelry, another to cameraless photograms demonstrating polarized color experiments that look as if they want to be paintings, and the foyer and another room to a number of vivacious still lifes in which cultural artifacts as well as flowers and other organic objects are optically altered by various lenses consisting of plexiglass rods and liquids in glasses.
It is these last that offer the most promise. Here, zebra stripes oscillate, red amaryllis glows, grapes look like marble eggs, and various statuettes posture and strut in a confident display of Friedman's skill.
However, the objets d'art in her sprightly still lifes give pause: Are we responding to Friedman's imagination or to the art of the artifacts, which include antique Japanese cups, Victorian dolls, Thai silver bowls and carved figurines? What comes to mind are the words of Czech theorist Vilem Flusser, who says, speaking of photography in general, "The photographic forest consists of cultural objects . . . each stands between the photographer and his game, preventing him from seeing it . . . "
Friedman's "game" as I see it is optical illusion and cultural allusion, and both might have been reinforced had she opted for depth instead of diversity, nature instead of bric-a-brac.
"Fantasy and Illusion" will be on view until April 26. Gallery 10, 1519 Connecticut Ave. NW, is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.