Monday, October 25, 2010

Paul Strand, Paul Strand In Mexico at Aperture Gallery

Paul Strand spent much of his artistic life trying to escape the influence of others, be it in his early days as a student of Clarence H. White making soft White-esque ambient landscapes, his work from the turn of the century, which even his wife criticized as a bad ripoff of Alfred Stieglitz’s pictures of his wife Georgia O’Keefe, or his post 1915 Armory show where he desperately tried to create cubist images like that of Picasso and Braque by making close-up pictures of domestic objects.

It would take Strand more then twenty years, becoming a film maker and fleeing America in the 1940’s to avoid testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, before he would find his voice in the rural villages of Western Europe.

His Mexican work dates mostly from the 1930’s, not long after his wife had left him for Georgia O’Keefe, and the beginning of his time as a full time filmmaker. Strand’s Mexican photographs were a break from the graphic formalism he embraced for most of the 1920’s, but the pictures are still rough.

The photographs feel uncertain. It doesn’t appear that Strand knew what do with a picture if it wasn’t dominated by line and shape. So he plays it exceedingly safe by photographing almost everything from straight on, filling the frame with his subject while keeping a polite distance. He does manage to show a wondrous array of Mexico’s working class population and their Catholic iconography. Unfortunately even in his later reprints, he insisted on printing everything too dark, making Mexico look as if it was constantly weighed down in a state of gothic Catholic pessimism.

Yet hidden in the show is Strand’s less-canonized film work on The Wave, a pseudo-documentary on the unionizing of Mexican fishermen. The movie shimmers with scene after thrilling scene of sunsoaked fishing villages, hand-held camera work from inside small fishing boats as they head out to sea and pile after pile of undulating silver fish. Watching it, it’s hard not to wonder where the life and light is in Strand’s rather dour photographs that make up the rest of his work form Mexico.

Aperture Gallery (547 W 27th St. 4th Fl. Btw. 10th & 11th Aves.) through Nov. 13th


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