In just a few years, between 1915 and 1917, Paul Strand took many of the pictures for which, nearly a century later, he is celebrated as a pioneer of the art of photography.
There were the iconic views of New York, making the transition from horses to engines but crowded, then as now, with solitary individuals. In one, a woman in white is dwarfed by the portal of St. Patrick's Cathedral. In another, pedestrians are silhouetted against a forbiddingly abstract bully of a building. This image, titled Wall Street is probably the most famous of his career.
In a very different mood, there were photographs of dishes and other household items in cubist compositions. There were views from upper-story windows in which snow-covered rowhouse parapets or fences and clotheslines full of laundry stand both as abstract visual compositions and documents of how people lived.
There was White Picket Fence, Port Kent, New York, an evocation of small-town life that can be seen as a sort of companion to Wall Street. Both pictures are about geometric repetition, but the fence is subtly irregular, showing both that it is handwrought and reshaped by nature over time.
And then there was a small series of surreptitiously taken portraits of people on the street, posturing, yawning, arguing, begging. The subjects of these fierce photographs are shockingly present, even now, photographed at such close range that every pore and wrinkle, whisker and double chin seems something we feel as much as see.
All these seminal works hang in the very first gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's huge exhibition Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography, and they start the show off with a wallop. They show us an artist exploring and experimenting, trying to discover how photography could express the modern moment. They also show a perfectionist in the darkroom. You will want to see the vintage platinum prints, even if you have seen the images reprinted elsewhere.
This first section of the show climaxes with "Manhatta," a short film made in 1920 by Strand and the painter and photographer Charles Sheeler. There, the subject matter and the dynamic compositions of the still pictures are set in motion. Steaming tugboats, soaring buildings, and surging crowds combine to give us an image of New York as giant machine and home to multitudes. Strand aspired to be both seriously artistic and popular, and this film is very likely as close as he came.
If you take your time and look at every photograph in the first gallery and end with "Manhatta," you will have seen Strand's boldest experiments and greatest hits. But Strand's career went on for a half-century more, just as the show goes on for gallery after gallery. We are invited to look at Strand's work as a whole, to see the world as he saw it through the middle of the 20th century.
The occasion for this exhibition is the Art Museum's purchase of more than 3,000 prints from the Paul Strand Archive, which makes it the chief repository for his work. The museum has a lot invested in Strand, not just in money, but also in reputation. The exhibition and its lavish catalog, which reproduces many images at full size, are intended to show that Strand (1890-1976) had more than a few good years, and that his later work is worth knowing, too.
I think Peter Barberie, the museum's Brodsky curator of photographs who organized the retrospective and is chief author of the catalog, makes the case. The later work is not as experimental as what's in the first gallery, but art need not be new to be good. Indeed, most of the images on view have antecedents in Strand's first few years of work, as he returned to ideas, developed and refined them.
For example, there is an entire gallery devoted to Time in New England, a book in which Strand's photographs are juxtaposed with text from the region's history and literature. He acknowledged this entire project grew out of the white picket fence he had photographed three decades before.
Strand was famously deliberate. His cameras were heavy and bulky. He worked slowly. He sometimes aimed the camera at a rock or a tangle of grass and exposed the image for as much as an hour, achieving such depth you feel your eyes can crawl right into the thicket. Yet these pictures are not so much about sensation as they are about trying to capture the essence of place. What makes a place unique is not the architecture, though Strand shows us that. But he is equally interested in how the weeds look, and how the mayor's mother looks, weathered landscapes, weathered people, and the making of the new.
The cover image of Time in New England, which shows a white-frame New Hampshire town hall, fails every test of the holiday snapshot. The bottom of the building is cut off, and so is the top of its cupola, and a utility pole, which most amateurs would try to keep out of the picture, very nearly dominates it. The pole gives the picture its meaning; the old values embodied by the town hall endure, but electric power and telephones are there too, spurring change. The pole also animates the picture, playing off against the lines that define the austere old building.
Still, despite its excellence, Strand's post-1920 work is undeniably less exciting than what came before. I believe that's because he abandoned his greatest subject - New York City. Perhaps he felt he had exhausted the city, or it had exhausted him. Still, the city of his birth was a crucible of modernity, the shaper of his eye.
Strand spent most of the rest of his career as a traveler, first on his vacations from his day job as a commercial cinematographer, and later in his large book projects set in mostly foreign places. He made great pictures in Mexico, Italy, the Hebrides, and Ghana. But he never recaptured the electricity he drew from his hometown.
Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography
Through Jan. 4 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway.
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wednesday and Friday, until 8:45.
Admission: Adults, $20; seniors (65 and over), $18; students, $14 and youths (13 to 18), $14; children (12 and under), free
Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org