In about 1907 Paul Strand began visiting the studio of the great American photographer Alfred Stieglitz in New York. Eight years later Stieglitz wrote of him: ‘His work is pure. It is direct. It does not rely on tricks of process. In whatever he does there is applied intelligence.’
For more than half a century now Paul Strand has been looking at the world with the same pure, intelligent regard. Through his books and exhibitions, the permanent collection of his work in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and with his film Native Land, he has become known both in America and in Europe as one of the most important contributors to an art which is the closest expression of our times.
Paul Strand is a photographer of life in stillness, and nowhere more revealingly perhaps than in his book, Tir A Mhurain,* on the islands of the Outer Hebrides.
No one comes to this last stronghold of the Gaelic people by chance, for everything there is designed to resist the intruder: rock and wind, wave and solitude, and the people who have held on to their language, their religion, their culture and their rafters for as long as history remembers. So, if Paul Strand came here, it was not as an intruder, but because these islands offered him an image of the world which corresponded with his personal vision.
Assailed by the fleeting and dislocated images of daily life, few of us have time to penetrate the passionate revelations that lie in stillness. We have almost come to dread them and their accusation of so much that is meaningless and misdirected in movement. There is the temptation to turn over the pages of this book and be quit of it by admiring the technical mastery of the photographs. Or to envy the calm of land and seascapes, with an eye on the clock, the rustic and picturesque, as one turns on television.
But the photographs resist such cursory dismissal. They impose reflection, like a sudden silence when everything stands on the edge of discovery. It is the hour of midday when the clock folds its hands, or lays them palm-downwards on the knees of an old woman, resting on peat cut and stacked, wool spun and dyed, children and grandchildren. It is the moment when a man pauses to look across the fields of his inward years, marked out by crops and haystacks, sheep to be shorn and pastured. It is the boat tied up, the ropes and lobster-pots drying, the sudden watchfulness of children before the unknown, the shaggy, stocky cattle day-dreaming in the heather.
For those who live them such moments are outside time, when the view is detached from the surface of things and restores to them their essential meanings. Then these islands, pressed between the slides of sea and sky, yield up the most microscopic of their secrets. Nothing is non-essential or unrelated. Nothing is simply what it seems.
I’ve heard that one of the sensuous pleasures of the Chinese while they sit talking is to roll a stone between their fingers in a bowl of water. In much the same way Paul Strand presses into the texture of stone and wood, cloth and wool, plant and pottery, elucidating the tactile messages of their substance, seeking within them the hidden explanation of their endurance and renewal. They are not merely objects, but the very stuff of the people, the foundations on which they rest. Set in their context, the heads of these men and women, of their children, might be frescoes drawn on the granite, which lends its character to their flesh and blood.
But the faces have their private depth. One is reminded of the old daguerreotype and the long pose, with its slow melting away of the sitter’s Sunday face. These portraits have an inward contemplation, a dignity which establishes equality between the observed and the observer. It is as if the camera had recorded the long impression of growth and change, of habit and social practice, which has gone into the making of their personalities. One might match them with the doors and windows Paul Strand has always liked to photograph, these openings in the façade which look out and lead inward.
Scattered and solitary houses—small holdings on a spare and stubborn soil—a derelict boat—a tangle of sea-weed, but in Paul Strand’s world there is an order which exists, more perhaps in the will and determination of its people than in the apparent reality. Over the centuries a pact has been established between the rocky earth of the Hebrides and its crofters and fishermen. The terms of this pact are based on the solidarity between man and his material universe. They are partners in the hard fact of existence. The dry, tough roots which writhe out of rock and sand take a new sap from men’s palms when they are turned into the handles of spades and pitchforks or walking sticks. There are flowers everywhere. In window-pots and the lace of curtains. Knitted into woollens—wild irises and heather, daisies and pansies, the floral prints of aprons and children’s frocks. A drowned boot is washed up in flowers of kelp.
A tar-pot can speak for a man, and a horse’s skull for the dead. Rocks bear down the roof-thatch against winds which lift the thatch of hair on a boy’s head. The grass bends but holds like a bull’s pelt. Over the sound of surf one hears the proud skirl of pipes, the thin, reedy songs of the ancient bards.
In the kitchen, while the woman is absent, china dogs and tea-caddies stand guard over pots and kettle whispering on the stove. The dresser bears a testimony of egg-cups, plates, whisky bottles and holy pictures—what Cocteau called a ‘carrousel of silences’, in which the whole life of the family is engaged.
All the objects Paul Strand photographs are familiar. Even the bicycle has lived long enough with man to enter into his subconscious life and become part of his poetic imagery. The modern machine is only beginning to find a place in this pact of solidarity. Too often it exists as a crushing or alien adversary, or changes so quickly there is no time for it to become embedded among the deep images. Our tenderness for old locomotives and cars is evidence of the process. Perhaps we only began to dream of the aeroplane when Apollinaire became our mediator. In a world where we are increasingly estranged from objects, Paul Strand reminds us of a peace which for the people of his portraits remains possible, the alliance of man and matter.
But even on these islands the pact has too often been betrayed. In Basil Davidson’s complementary text, the wildness of the fens and the precarious fences around the holdings are translated into more precise terms. Persecution. Eviction. Forced immigration. The land stripped to its sand and rock by absentee owners. At one time deer replaced the barley. Youth drained away to the industries of the mainland. The waters were fished by other boats. Neglected and abandoned by a world in movement, it seemed that the stillness of the islands could be ignored out of existence.
Yet the tenacity of these people is legendary, and their memory goes back for more than a thousand years. They have never ceased to believe that their’s is ‘a good kind of life’, and that the creative partnership between themselves and their islands could be restored.
In one of his early poems Aragon wrote:
Under its breath the bell of my heart sings an old, old hope
This music How well I know it But the words
What did the words say exactly
The idiot words?
Instead of words, Paul Strand has given us images of the old, old hope of all those marooned on the Outer Hebrides of our times. His photographs are not the trompe l’oeil of an eternal and repetitive pattern of existence, but a heightened realism which claims that what is presented as fixed and immobile can still be changed, the pact renewed, and man participate again in the orphic mysteries of his earth.
In his latest book, Living Egypt, with text by James Aldridge, Paul Strand shifted his heavy camera in search of what Egypt was becoming, for a meaning that lay under antiquity or the political present. That he discovered this Egypt is evident from the warmth with which Egyptians themselves have welcomed the book. In Germany it sold out a few weeks after publication.
*Tir A Mhurain, Outer Hebrides, by Paul Strand (MacGibbon and Kee, London, 1963)