THE great American photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976), whose work is the subject of a centennial retrospective at the National Gallery of Art here, was an incredibly painstaking artist. Michael Hoffman, executive director of the Aperture Foundation, recalls how hard it was to meet Strand's exacting standards when they worked together in the mid-1960s on a second edition of Strand's already legendary ``Mexican Portfolio.''
Mr. Hoffman, who was present at the press preview for the exhibition, explained that since the original portfolio had been done in the 1930s, with 20 hand-pulled gravures, ``all the great gravure printers had died, and the process had gone out of existence. We had to make an exhaustive search and finally found, on the Brooklyn waterfront in a 19th-century loft building the Anderson Lamp Company.
``After climbing five flights of stairs, we encountered a scene of handwork and ancient machinery very much out of the 19th century, and this suited Paul immediately. Each plate was being inked and wiped by hand, the moistened paper rolled over the plates in slow, regular motions.
``The alchemy which went into the process was made up of many elements,'' Hoffman continued. ``The ink was ground by the printer-pressmen at the press by hand, the paper made by a handmade process in France.
``We almost couldn't find a lacquer which was really pure, to give the prints the luminosity that was Strand's hallmark. Finally we found an aging tradesman who said he had a lacquer which he was using to finish religious objects which was the purest in the world....
``Finally when ... the printer, who was then 85 years old, completed the hand-printed gravures, Paul wrote that [he] truly had made these images sing.''
There are 150 Strand images singing on the walls of the National Gallery, where the exhibition ``Paul Strand'' celebrates the centennial of his birth.
Six of Strand's prints, marking high points in his career, have been given to the National Gallery for its 50th anniversary present by the exhibition's corporate sponsor, Southwestern Bell.
These include his earliest known print, ``The White Fence''; ``The Workman''; ``Rebecca, New Mexico,'' a 1931 portrait of his first wife; ``Wild Iris''; ``Truckman's House''; and ``Toward the Sugar House, Vermont.'' Southwestern Bell has also promised to give the remainder of its Paul Strand Collection, 55 major photographs, to the National Gallery later. These gifts will form the core of the gallery's Paul Strand collection.
Many of these prints have never before been exhibited, Hoffman pointed out. ``What most people do not know is that Paul rarely ever sent on original prints for exhibitions,'' he said, explaining that Strand would take tear-sheets from books, mat them, and send them off to museums and galleries.
As a matter of fact, most of the prints on view here did not become available until after Strand's death in 1976. The reason? Many of his most beautiful pictures, from platinums to silver prints to the famous portraits of his first wife, Rebecca, were found in boxes beside his bed after his death. Others were found in warehouses, where they'd been stored for 50 years. Many of his later works were kept under the bed of his third wife, Hazel Kingsbury Strand, and found there after her death in 1982.
During most of his career, Strand would make only one or two prints from any negative, said Hoffman. ``In fact, he either couldn't bring himself to, or couldn't, duplicate his first achievement. He would never allow anyone to make prints of his negatives in his darkroom.''
Three years before Strand's death, Hoffman introduced him to Richard Benson, a man Hoffman calls ``a true genius at reproducing photographic images.'' Benson began working with Strand to produce four portfolios of photographic prints.
The last of the master prints were produced from this collaboration a few weeks before Strand's death. The handsome catalog for the show includes 104 of Benson's copy negatives as well as 40 duotones: To reproduce Strand's subtle shadings and delineations, six colors, each applied separately, were used on the hand-fed prints at Benson's studio in Rhode Island.
Strand's quest for perfection in reproduction was a factor that enhanced the quality of the books for which he became famous: ``Photographs of Mexico''; ``La France de Profil''; ``Un Paese,'' a book of photographs about Italy with text by Italian filmmaker Cesare Zavattini; ``Tir a' Mhurain, Outer Hebrides,'' with text by Basil Davidson; ``An African Portrait,'' with a Davidson text; and ``Living Egypt'' with text by James Aldridge.
There were also the published portfolios - ``On my Doorstep,'' and ``The Garden,'' focusing on his home in Orgeval, France, which became his world when he was no longer able to travel.
Although his still photographs were the first love of his life, Strand supported himself from the '20s until the early '40s as a cameraman in films. Six of his films are being screened daily through Feb. 3 as part of the exhibition here.
As a bread-and-butter job, he also worked freelance for MGM, Pathe News and others, filming everything from football and polo games to water pipe-laying. By the time his concern over social issues took him to France to live in the '40s, he was working full-time at his photographs.
After closing at the National Gallery Feb. 3., 1991, the Strand show goes on to the Art Institute of Chicago, May 26-July 21; the St. Louis Art Museum, Aug. 11-Oct. 6, 1991; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Nov. 10 through Jan. 12, 1992; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 12-May 15, 1992; and the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, June 14-Aug. 16, 1992.