Interview with Martin Barnes, Curator of Paul Strand: Photography and Film at the V&A

A hugely influential American photographer and film maker, Paul Strand, will be featured in a major retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, as the first exhibition in the UK since his death. Photography and Film for the 20th Century highlights the artist’s colossal career whose images have defined the way fine art and documentary photography is understood and practiced today. The exhibition will present around 200 objects spanning Strand’s entire career, including his breakthrough trials in abstraction and candid street portraits, and extended explorations of the American Southwest. We catch up with Martin Barnes, the Senior Curator of Photographs at the V&A to discuss the impact of the work that resonates today.

A: This is the first UK exhibition of Strand’s work since his death. Why now?
MB: There has not been a show of this scale in the UK on Paul Strand in over 40 years and it’s about time that his work was reassessed and brought to the attention of a new generation. He was one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers. It’s always worth looking back at the greats to inform what is being done in the field today.

A:What do you think has been Strand’s biggest impact on the world of photography?
Strand is an important figure in the history of photography, not only because his career spanned much of the last century, but because he relentlessly trialled and pioneered myriad photographic approaches, subjects and technologies. His drive for seeing what he and the camera could do was unrivalled; pictures that he made have established their own genres. All kinds of photographers have been following in his footsteps for years, sometimes without knowing it.

A: How have you treated the (often intensely) political dimension of Strand’s art in this exhibition?
: For the exhibition we have taken a chronological and geographical rather than thematic approach, so that visitors can see the development of Strand’s photography over time. In his photographs, political statements are inferred through subtle nuances, rather than illustrated explicitly. His films such as The Wave and Native Land, with extracts shown in the exhibition, are more politically explicit, and are often to do with workers’ rights, social justice and democracy. He was committed to Marxist ideals and his most politically-charged photographs can be found from 1950 onwards, when he fled McCarthyism in the U.S. Following this he travelled to remote areas in Italy and Scotland to document people and places on the cusp social change for a series of photobooks. He photographed in places with socialist governments, like Ghana, or Romania under Communist rule. Sometimes it is a case of what is missing in his photographs that carries the most potent political message, for example, the absent Italian father in The Family, Luzzara, killed by Fascists for his communist beliefs years before.

A:Would you say that Strand’s international perspective has a significant effect on the nature of his work?
Strand travelled widely throughout the US, Europe and Africa during his career, balancing the art of photography with the life story of his subjects. A common thread throughout his work is the portrayal of the common links in humanity across different countries and cultures. He was very open-minded and hugely democratic in the way he looked at diverse geographic regions and communities throughout his work.

A: How could one compare his images and films from America to those he made in Europe and elsewhere?
: The main difference between the artist’s earlier works made in America and his later works made in Europe and Africa, is his embrace of the photobook format from 1950 onwards. Rather than the bold, instantaneous impact of his early experiments with photography, his later works are to be read in series form and have a filmic quality about them. He made his first venture into the new medium Time in New England (1950), before he left the US, but it wasn’t until he visited the small Italian village of Luzzara in 1953 to photograph for the book Un Paese (‘a village’) or when he made his 1954 trip to the Scottish Hebrides that he really got into his stride with the format.

1. Images from Paul Strand, Photography and Film for the 20th Century. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.