Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century at the V&A
The UK hasn’t seen a major retrospective dedicated to the American photographer Paul Strand since the 1970s. The V&A has set out to rectify this oversight of recent years, and is now offering a comprehensive overview of the artist’s long career. The show is understated but fascinating, and is rewarding whether you’re a first-time viewer or a long-time fan of Strand’s work.
Included are works produced over the course of 60 years, from the 1910s to the 1970s. The exhibition follows Strand’s career chronologically, and also divides satisfyingly into sets of images from different geographical locations. The show moves from New York to France, via Mexico, Italy, the Outer Hebrides and Ghana. As the curator neatly notes, Strand’s wanderings were informed by his political conscience, and he constantly sought out places on the edge of political reform or where he saw a potential models for a socialist system of government.
From his earliest painterly abstractions to his striking portraits and close-up details of plant life in his garden, each photograph is instantly compelling. Many of the works differ strongly from one another, his style changing over the decades as photographic technology developed, but Strand’s careful composition and insightful eye for detail is evident in each photograph.
With a brilliant touch of authenticity, many of that photographer’s original prints have been included in the exhibition. These silver gelatin prints were developed and produced by Strand himself, and the quality of production is extraordinary. This is photography of the highest calibre presented as it should be seen. The curatorial team have made the admirable decision to present all the images in unobtrusive white frames, as Strand himself chose to display his work, and the effect is one of elegance and sophistication.
The exhibition as a whole is well-designed, interfering as little as possible with the works on show. Cleverly, the wall colours for each section are taken from the photobooks that Strand compiled and designed over the last few decades of his career. The V&A was the first museum in the world to start collecting photography and they continue to do so today, adding nine excellent photographs by Strand to their already extensive collection in advance of the exhibition. This show is an absolute must for photography lovers, and offers some surprising gems even to the uninitiated.
Paul Strand is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 19th March until 3rd July 2016, for further information visit here.