Photography in the Digital Age and the Great Paul Strand

Paul Strand.png

My relationship with Paul Strand began when I was college. I was 21. Paul Strand was dead.

I’d do my homework on the fourth floor of the library. He was opposite me—in books spread out across the table. Whenever I’d look up, there he was, staring back at me. Not him, or even a picture of him, but his soul—emanating from the black and white photographs he had taken of fellow humans and the worlds they inhabited.

What I didn’t understand at the time was simply this: Paul Strand and I weren’t just hanging out. He was teaching me. He was changing me. And most of all, he was getting me ready for the digital age.

Paul said, “The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep.”

In my quest to be a photographer, I had been schlepping camera gear all over campus, up the mountains, down to the lake. Paul was showing me that the work of a photographer is to open his eyes and see what is immediately around him, and often right in front of him.

Some liked to call Paul Strand the architect of “Straight Photography,” which aims to capture the everyday world in a straightforward way. But Paul’s approach was not just to “capture” the world—like the Lumière brothers who captured the flow of life by setting up a motion picture camera on a street corner.

Paul Strand used his large format camera to mine—to courageously excavate—what could not be perceived on the surface of experience. He drilled down and in. He let himself be stopped in his tracks by subjects most people would have either missed or dismissed as uninteresting. And stepping into the stream of life with his camera, he stopped time, quite literally, to give others an opportunity to penetrate the moment, and to live in it as long as they desired.

Looking up from my homework and studying the photography books around me, I’d find myself transported into the world of Paul’s subjects. In the process, I’d be transformed. That’s because the power of his work was more than just the quality of his images. It was the invitation his photography extended to me to see my own world in a new way.

What was the new way? Previous to Paul, I’d approach a photographic image intent on confirming my ideas about beauty, order, light, etc. Paul’s work encouraged me to let those ideas be undermined—to let myself be disrupted. In ugliness, I found unexpected beauty. In chaos, I observed an unexpected dimension of order.

This new way of seeing created an organ of perception in me—an organ I did not have before. I found myself capable of thoughts and feelings I hadn’t experienced. In a photograph of a woman standing alone (perhaps abandoned), I perceived a profoundly strong and independent spirit. In the deeply carved lines of an old man’s face, my heart swelled with love for all who endure the burdens of mortality.

Exercising my newfound capacities, I recognized these images could not have been excavated by a morally neutral photographer. To open his eyes and see what he saw, Paul had to believe in some measure of social and political redress. He had to believe that by his work, he could change the world.

He certainly changed me. His black and white images, most effectively exhibited on a white plaster wall, cried out for me to supply context and relevance. Each image posed a question and issued a call. Would I bring all of myself to the seeing? Would I let the seeing lead to a reformation of my soul? Would I permit the serenity of a quiet village street to temper my frenetic routine? Would I allow the unaffected presence of a child’s face to transform my self-conscious and distracted life? 

There, in the library, Paul entreated me from the ivory tower of photography-for-photography’s sake, down to earth and to the people of the earth, where life actually happens. His passionate marriage of realism and abstraction engaged me socially and spiritually. From my encounters with him, I determined to go out and “see better,” as Edmund pled with King Lear to do. I resolved to see my own world more deeply, truthfully, and responsively.

Fast forward three decades, to the digital age. How my world has changed! I’m walking around with a phone in my pocket, able to take pictures anywhere, anytime. There’s an even greater hunger for the authentic photograph—for an image that will call forth response, action, and whole-souled engagement in the world beyond ourselves. And the audience for such images is everywhere, always—as close as the social media platforms we inhabit.

Paul Strand prepared me for this. He taught me to discover the limitless world on my own doorstep. And he inspired me to see and share it straightforwardly, in a way that invites me and others to be disrupted and renewed by life.

Thank you, Paul Strand, for sharing your soul and changing mine.