You can see, in the exhibit, Strand’s first photographic pictures from the very beginning of the 20th century. Strand was, at the time, heavily influenced by a movement called Pictorialism. Pictorialists wanted to take the rough edges out of photographs. They wanted photography to be more like painting. They used soft focus techniques. They sometimes added color, brushstrokes, and other effects to their prints to enhance the sense that these photographs could be paintings. They made pictures that were moody and diffuse.
Strand showed some of his Pictorialist photographs to the influential and older photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz told Strand to ditch the Pictorialism. He advised Strand, in so many words, to let photographs be photographs. That’s a central tenet of Modernism. Don’t be afraid of the medium. Embrace it. If photographs produce harsh, extremely detailed images, so be it. The harshness, the detail, the inherent realism – these can all be strengths. With Stieglitz and Strand, photography stopped trying to be like painting and started truly to become its own art form.
(Image: Paul Strand’s Portrait, Washington Square Park (1917) via Wikimedia Commons)