PAUL STRAND didn't just "take" photographs or "make" photographs. He captured and possessed his scenes and subjects, once and for all.

Paul who? That's Paul Strand, the famous little-known American photographer. On Sunday the National Gallery of Art will open a splendid retrospective of Strand's luminous and almost unreproduceable photographs, which have had a commanding influence on virtually every photographer we have heard of.

Strand (1890-1976) was a fanatic of the first water. Until near the end of his life he refused to let anyone else touch his film. He usually made no more than one or two prints from a negative, and seldom allowed an original out of his keeping. If asked to contribute work to an exhibition, he generally sent tearsheets from the painstakingly printed books whose production preoccupied him for much of his life.

Many of the 150 photographs in the exhibit are being shown in public for the first time. Some of them were found under Strand's bed after he died; others were found under his wife's bed after she died. Sixty-one of them will become part of the gallery's permanent collection, donated by exhibit sponsor Southwestern Bell, after the show's seven-stop tour winds up in London in 1992.

At first glance the photographs may seem disappointing, so accustomed are we to style over substance in photography. Strand's subjects range from abstractions to landscapes and his composition varies from arty to ordinary; what makes his photographs extraordinary -- almost unbelievable -- is their limpid directness and technical perfection. After a lifetime of looking at photos it takes a little time to learn how to see a Paul Strand photograph.

A Paul Strand photograph is realer than real; you feel as though you could reach through the frame and touch, not just the object itself, but the idea of it. Strand called this "respect for the object"; we can only call it greatness.

Most visitors will recognize a dozen or so of these pictures, which have been regularly included in surveys of American photography, but here you'll truly "see them again, for the first time." His 1951 portrait of a young French farmboy, one of the most widely reproduced of all Strand's works, is unrecognizable here. In normal -- which is to say comparatively flat and toneless -- reproduction, it is a striking portrait of a beautiful boy with an ambiguous expression on his face. The original photograph is the young man himself, pulsing with life and latent power.

Strand's astonishing gift was fully developed early on: A 1911 photograph of an English sheepfold has all the clarity and particularity of his later work and is better composed than most. And if we were not aware that photography went through several technological revolutions in Strand's lifetime, we'd never guess it from his work, which is all of a piece from first to last, whatever film or camera he used.

"Even people who are into photography will be blown away," promises gallery director J. Carter Brown. "This show gives a 'take' on Paul Strand that few of us could have imagined."

It also gives us a take-home on Paul Strand. The exhibition catalogue is a state-of-the-art treasury of Strand's photographs, the nearest approach possible to perfectly faithful commercial reproduction. The black-and-white photographs were printed on a six-color press using what normally are color-separation plates, so that Strand's rich, subtle tones come through unmuted, his depths unmuddied. The book's a bargain at $40, made possible by the Aperture Foundation's damn-the-expense dedication to creating a library of the world's great photographs.

Did we mention that Strand made movies also, in fact earned most of his living from films? And that he spent half his life in self-exile in France because of McCarthyism and so forth? Sorry, time's up.

PAUL STRAND: An American Vision -- Sunday through Feb. 3 in the East Building, National Gallery of Art. Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday and 11 to 6 Sundays. Metro: Archives.