How Paul Strand Photographed the “People’s History”

When Howard Zinn first published A People's History of the United States in 1980, he hoped to start a “quiet revolution” in the way people viewed history. By giving voice to the voiceless relegated to the wings of history while major players dominated the stage, Zinn wrote history in a wholly new, revolutionary way. Just as Zinn gave those people a voice, photographer Paul Strand gave them a face, but more than 60 years before. Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art traces the development of one of the founding fathers of modern photography in search of democratic ideals not just in his native America, but all around the world. Viewing the world through Strand’s lens will renew not just your faith in the power of art, but also your faith in the human spirit’s resilience regardless of time or place.


Strand’s long been recognized as part of the holy trinity of modern American photography along with Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. With such canonization sometimes comes complacency in interpretation—in Strand’s case, justified praise for his early work but unfair silence regarding later projects. This exhibition represents the first retrospective of Strand’s work since the 1970s, which also began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1980, Strand’s estate donated almost 500 prints from that exhibition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Since 2009, the museum’s dedicated itself to acquiring almost 4,000 more prints and other items, thus making The Paul Strand Collection at the PMA the single largest Strand collection in the world. Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography celebrates that collection’s realization as much as the artist himself.

From the very beginning, Strand learned to link politics and photography. In 1907, Strand signs up for a class at the Ethical Culture School in New York City titled “Nature Study and Photography” taught by the progressive sociologist-photographer Lewis Hine. Hine took Strand and the class to visit Alfred Stieglitz’s “291” Gallery, an experience that, Strand would later claim, inspired him to become a photographer. Strand soon entered Stieglitz’s circle of artists, formed friendships with Georgia O'Keeffe and others, and studied new art movements coming over from Europe such as Cubism.

The young photographer then set out on a series of “experiments” with photography—itself a young, growing medium—up to the end of the 1920s.  Amanda N. Bock, one of the curators of the exhibition, describes this time in her catalog essay as Strand’s “painstakingly slow and methodical exploration of genres”—everything from landscapes to “still lifes verging on abstraction.” Walking through this section of the exhibition you feel the restlessness of Strand’s eye as he moved from the strikingly honest “street portraits” taken of unaware subjects to the iconic, “Hopper before Hopper” Wall Street.

What holds this period together is Strand’s growing sense of modernism, both as an esthetic and as a human condition. Not for Strand was socially disengaged abstraction or just as disengaged “ironic street photography,” Peter Barberie, chief curator of the exhibition explains in the catalog. “For Strand,” Barberie writes, “realism could be woven out of fact or fiction, or both, but it had to say something tangible about the world.” The most “tangible” element in Strand’s early 20th century world was the increasing wave of modern machinery, which simultaneously excited with new promise and threatened with self-destruction. For the rest of his life, Strand pursued that modernism in different places and different people around the world.

Shocked by his own “street portraits” in 1916, Strand gave up portraiture almost entirely until the 1930s, when he traveled to Mexico and stayed for 2 years to photograph not only the local people, but also the bultos or devotional statues in their churches. Using the same prolonged exposure (sometimes up to an hour) that allowed him to milk every detail from his nature studies, Strand photographed these dramatic wooden statues of Christ’s passion to reveal every detail of the fabrics and even the spots where faithful fingers had worn away paint over the years.

Strand’s own prolonged exposure to the humanity of these people revealed to him new truths about the reality of modernism. “Attuned to modernity’s distinct inflections in different locales,” Barberie explains, Strand “wanted to show how time and history had shaped the present moment of each place he photographed… The realism he advocates involves, in his words, a dynamic approach to everyday life that engages the changing world, avoids treating subjects as immutable or timeless, and represents to ordinary people the conflicts and heroism of their own lives.” The search for that everyday heroism in the face of the challenges of modernism became Strand’s own heroic quest.

The exhibition gives ample room for us to follow Strand on his quest. Strand’s first book project, Time in New England (published 1950), explored the nature of American modern democracy in the cradle of American democracy itself. Strand and collaborator Nancy Newhall selected texts such as the last letters of condemned anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to pair with the photographs of New England people and scenes to “evacuat[e] text and image of canonical and clichéd signifiers and giv[e] these concepts by threading them into a kind of ‘people’s history’ of the region,” argues Bock. The Great Depression’s effects on American culture and inequality radicalized Strand’s already leftist tendencies, leading him not only to such works as Time in New England, but also to leave American in 1950 for France, where he would live until his death in 1976. “McCarthyism” had not yet chilled free speech in American, but Strand sensed early on which direction the political winds were blowing.

Both Barberie and Bock understandably tread lightly when it comes to Strand’s politics. Barberie calls Strand “undogmatic” politically, whereas Bock prefers “many degrees of left” to describe Strand’s ranging from FDRNew Deal” devotee to Communist curious. But I tend to see Strand as “political” in the original, ancient sense of the word, as pertaining to citizens rather than attack ads and gridlock. Bock quotes Strand idealizing over “an artist who is also a citizen,” something that he aspired to throughout his career all the way from the streets of New York City to Europe and finally to Egypt and to Ghana just as that sub-Saharan country was taking its first steps toward democracy in the 1960s. When you look at a picture such as The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis) (shown above), taken during Strand’s time photographing the people of the Italian village of Luzzara, you could easily mistake these five brothers and their mother as Americans. The similarities are strong enough that nationality doesn’t even matter anymore. Strand evolved from American citizen to world citizen but never lost his sense of patriotism for the American democratic ideal he challenged his home country and all others to live up to.

Unlike so many other photography exhibitions that feel like you’re witnessing a disembodied eyeball at work, Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography makes you feel the presence of the artist throughout. The final room contains the actual cameras Strand used as well as photographs of him at work through the years, but it is the artifacts of his travels, such as the annotated map he and his wife used to navigate Ghana, that give you the full effect of his quest. Viewing the exhibit can be an exhausting experience simply from the intensity of this humanity that compels you to look closer at everything from the portraits to doorways dilapidated with character. Interactive kiosks that allow you to virtually page through Strand’s books now long out of print at first seem like modernist intrusions, but I could easily imagine Strand himself, ever the modernist, enthralled with the displays. Such a combination of humanism and modernism is the exhibition’s most fitting tribute to the artist.

Although Strand usually worked slowly in composing his images, one scene during his trip to Ghana made him impulsively snap away at a bus rolling by featuring the words “Never Despair” on the back. Those two words could be the emblem for all of Paul Strand’s life and work. “We like to photograph people who have strength and dignity in their faces,” Strand said of his and his wife’s work in Italy, “whatever life has done to them, it hasn’t destroyed them. They still have their own kind of humanity.” Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography demonstrates that no matter what happened to Paul Strand—even self-imposed exile—he kept his “own kind of humanity” that never despaired when Fascism, Communism, and even McCarthyism threatened democratic citizens at home and abroad. At a time when everything from Ebola to ISIS makes you question your faith in this modern world, Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography provides a beautiful reminder of what really matters and why it will always endure.

[Image: The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis), 1953 (negative); mid-late 1960s (print). Paul Strand, American, 1890-1976. Gelatin silver print, Image: 11 7/16 x 14 9/16 inches (29.1 x 37 cm). Sheet (irregular): 11 3/4 x 15 1/16 inches (29.8 x 38.3 cm). The Paul Strand Collection, purchased with funds contributed by Lois G. Brodsky and Julian A. Brodsky, 2014. © Paul Strand Archive/Aperture Foundation.]

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for allowing me to attend the press preview for and for providing me with the image above and a review copy of the catalog to the exhibition Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography, which runs through January 4, 2015.]

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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