Study visit review: The studium of Paul Strand

An enjoyable morning with OCA students at ‘Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century’ at the V&A on Saturday. Thanks to Kate and Amano who have already sent me links to their log posts. I enjoyed reading them and strongly recommend you to check them out.

After the show we had a good hour talking about the work over a cup of coffee in the breezy and dazzling V&A garden. I was asked by some of the group to write something for the OCA blog, which I have to admit, has been quite difficult. I was moved and even amazed by some of the photographs on show but I found that I still didn’t have any particular position to Paul Strand, or to his documentary legacy. So I’m offering my own brief thoughts below as just one voice in the dialogue. Please use the comments to add your own responses and learning log links.

Portrait, Washington Square Park (1917)
Portrait, Washington Square Park (1917)

I responded most strongly to the early work, which were basically studies in form, and I looked up Clive Bell’s ‘The Aesthetic Hypothesis’ (1914) to try and find out what exactly ‘significant form’ meant for modernism at that time. The subdued ‘metallic’ surfaces, the lack of intimacy, the intensity and formal clarity led me to think that what interested in me in Strand, unfashionably I know, was his taste or ‘studium’. But when I consulted my Camera Lucida I found that it wasn’t really ‘studium’ that I meant. For Barthes, the studium is an ‘inconsequential taste… of the order of liking rather than loving’. But in the early work Strand’s taste is more than that – there’s presence (see the lady above). From this point I understood better how I felt about the post war work as well, which with a few exceptions (Young Boy obviously), lacked the intensity of those early works and for me was of the order of liking, not loving. Unfortunately, taste is not in any of our courses, so far as I know, for the simple reason that it can’t be taught.

The curators also took no position (as usual), which for them is actually a position because it’s a kind of affirmation: the value of Paul Strand (and photography) is so obvious that why would we need to explain why we’re showing it? This led to some inane (for me) wall texts. Luckily you don’t need to read them.

Within our group a range of viewpoints were expressed, some informed by research, some by personal experience, others just felt in front of the work. I liked the enthusiasm – a student (dare I say it?) should be an enthusiast – but whether admirer or detractor, all added something to my experience of Paul Strand.

Robert Bloomfield, OCA Tutor.

Image Credit: Paul Strand. Portrait, Washington Square Park (1917). Wikimedia Commons.


  1. emmapocock 14 July 2016 at 9:20 am

    Thanks Rob, it was a really interesting study visit (and apologies for my little one interrupting the discussion!) Here’s a link to my blog – I actually preferred the later work, which I think is because I prefer a series building up a picture rather than a single striking image. What struck me most about the early work was its variety, I don’t think I’ve come across another photographer who was as versatile whilst maintaining a distinct style.

    1. Robert Bloomfield 21 July 2016 at 9:05 am

      absolutely no problem for the little one emma – she’s part of your practice isn’t she?

  2. Amano - Photographic Studies 14 July 2016 at 9:58 am

    The view that Strand was at his best in earlier days when under the influence Stieglitz is held by some yet I can not help feel his later work that produced a number of photobooks is equally worthy. Since the exhibition, I have been reading and looking at Un Paese (there were quite a few photographs from this series in the exhibition), Strand’s book about a small Italian town in the Po Valley; there is a touching quality to this that I do not find in many other photobooks. Perhaps this is because of the well written text which is free from ideology but focuses on the working people of that place in time. I guess Strand is being more documentary in nature here while earlier images had more artistic input.
    My latest blog concerning my second visit is here …
    My review of the Un Paese book is here …

    1. Robert 20 July 2016 at 7:39 am

      I used to love the Don Camillo stories set in the Po valley about the struggles between the village priest and the communist mayor. Contemporaneous to Un Paese, I wonder if Strand knew about them.

      1. Amano - Photographic Studies 20 July 2016 at 11:01 pm

        Good question Robert! The first Don Camillo book was published in 1948 with an American edition coming out in 1950, a few years prior to Strand visiting the Po Valley; however, there was also a French language film that came out in 1950. I have not as yet come across any direct reference to Don Camillo though in either Strand’s writing or the writing by scholars about Strand.

  3. blasgs 20 July 2016 at 5:31 pm

    Great to read all your reviews about the Paul Strand’s exhibition. Since my fourth assignment of C&N was a picture reading of The White Fence, I would have like to be there, sharing such an interesting experience.

    Reading your blogs I didn’t see too many mentions to the early work of Paul Strand (except Amano reflections on the modernist vision). Since my contact with Strand’s picture is through book reproductions, I wonder about the quality of the prints, and how the white fence looks like, and how processing contributes to the “punctum” on this picture. I read somewhere that Strand didn’t make anything interesting since 1920, but after having been studying his work for more than an entire month I find his work fascinating and very appealing. Each project has different motivations and a deep research that goes beyond of the photographic practice.

    The most important thing I learned from Paul Strand is that when you start a photography project is essential to leave aside photography and devote you time to reading, researching and and immerse yourself in the matter calmly… and yes, I think Paul Strand read Don Camilo.

    It’s not as amazing as your blog post, but just in case you want to have a look to mine:

    Or have a little fun with my “White Fence” reconstruction 🙂

    1. Amano - Photographic Studies 20 July 2016 at 11:06 pm

      As I remember, The White Fence in the exhibition was printed by Strand as a platinum print; the quality was exceptional for the time and the platinum process is one that has never really been matched hence it’s revival today as in an exhibition of Sebastian Salgado’s last year at Photo London.

      1. Amano - Photographic Studies 25 July 2016 at 12:09 pm

        I have just been looking at the exhibition catalogue (actually this refers to another showing of Strand’s work in 2014 in the USA) and apparently the print shown was not a platinum but a silver gelatine print. Strand would have originally printed The White Fence as a platinum print but although the negative was made in 1916, this print comes from 1945 when Strand reprinted some of his work for his MOMA retrospective. In fact, throughout the exhibition, there were older prints and later prints, and it seems the choice was determined by what prints were available to the curators.

    2. Amano - Photographic Studies 20 July 2016 at 11:09 pm

      “The most important thing I learned from Paul Strand is that when you start a photography project is essential to leave aside photography and devote you time to reading, researching and and immerse yourself in the matter calmly… ” interesting but where did you get this idea from please!? Strand’s method of photographing was far from easy and seemed to involve a lot of skill so I wonder how he could leave aside photography.

      1. blasgs 21 July 2016 at 6:42 am

        Considering his book “Time in New England”, the result of five years of work, especially documentation, where he and his editor collaborator gathered all kind of information to contextualize the project. About the way he worked Georgia O’Keeffe chose two adjectives: “thick and slow”.

        1. Amano - Photographic Studies 25 July 2016 at 12:13 pm

          For his book, Time in New England, eventually published after Strand had left America, he worked with Nancy Newhall who handled the text leaving Strand to do the photographs. It is true Strand referenced other work such as that of photographer Samuel Chamberlain but he did not operate in the way contemporary photographers tend to in which context can play a huge part.

    3. Robert Bloomfield 21 July 2016 at 9:08 am

      well done for publicising your writing blas, i like your naked fence.

    1. blasgs 25 July 2016 at 4:39 pm

      Great review Jonathan. I like the idea of the third dimension that you mention in your comment of the White Fence.

    2. Robert 27 July 2016 at 6:24 am

      Thanks Jonathan, nicely crafted piece.


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