NEW YORK — 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 Czanne 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. His images immediately took on greater complexity, and pictures he made during 1915, like one of pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages on Fifth Avenue, capture the frenetic, seductive rhythm of the city. That year Strand produced his first masterpiece, "Wall Street," a darkly beautiful portrait of humanity in the shadow of big business.
As the exhibition's title suggests, 1916 was a linchpin year for Strand. That summer he made a series of abstract images inspired by Cubism, close-ups of tables and bowls and and porch railings that seem to strain at the picture edges. These studies taught Strand the dynamic language of Modernism.
While these experiments now seem trapped in their time, the work they inspired has an immediacy that has persisted for more than 80 years.
Strand continued to find abstract order in life, but, perhaps remembering the social conscience of his first teacher, Hine, he became increasingly intrigued by the individuals around him. Using a camera with a right-angle lens that allowed him to take candid images undetected, Strand made a series of seminal sidewalk portraits. These pictures of peddlers, laborers and, the most famous, a blind woman vendor, possess the formal rigor of modern art, but are most impressive for the humanity they reveal in both their subjects and their maker.
Strand had fused the aestheticism of Stieglitz to the engaged realism of Hine. Though he produced only 80 images during his years of creative explosion, "virtually everybody [in photographic circles] was indelibly struck by them," according to Maria Morris Hambourg, who heads the Met's photography department and curated the exhibit.
Ms. Hambourg believes Strand still has lessons to teach young photographers in this age of Post-Modernism. "Be as courageous and open-minded as he was," she says. "He really experimented."