Paul Strand – print acquisition by SNPG

We were very excited to hear of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s latest photography acquisition, great to hear that nine images from South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, by Paul Strand have been acquired for the nations’s photography collection. Great news indeed. Below, you can read about the acquisition and see the images, but we recommend going to see them in the flesh so to speak!

The nine photographs will be on show as part of Collecting Now at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, from 20 June to 20 September 2015.

 

Paul Strand

Nine photographs by Paul Strand (1890-1976), one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, have been acquired by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, where they will go on public display until 20 September. Taken from Strand’s series of Hebridean photographs from South Uist in 1954, the works are the first examples of his Scottish work to enter into a public collection in Scotland.

This major acquisition, supported by the Art Fund, is composed of nine vintage black and white portraits of Scottish lives and landscapes in South Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. The works will be hung in the current exhibition Collecting Now, which focuses on the Gallery’s growing collection.

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976). Croft, Locarnon, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976).
Croft, Locarnon, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

The American photographer Paul Strand is ranked among the most important artists within the history of photography, and his work has influenced generations of photographers. In 1954, upon hearing a radio programme on the Gaelic songs of South Uist, he decided to travel there along with his wife, Hazel Kingsbury Strand. Having been introduced to the islanders by the local doctor, Strand spent three months taking over a hundred photographs of the island and its people for his book, Tìr a’ Mhurain (1962). Taken from a traditional Gaelic song, the title translates as ‘Land of Bent Grass’.

Strand photographed many of the people in and around their homes, often posing them before a weathered wall. Within the group of nine works going on display, there are four striking portraits that show the sitters looking directly at the camera, exuding strength and dignity. Strand was keen to understand his subjects, their environments and the forces that shaped their lives, and spent his first few weeks on the island observing the people he would photograph – fishermen, crofters, their wives and children. Nine years after the end of the WWII, South Uist was still an impoverished community and the vast majority of families depended on the produce from the land and sea. The remaining five photographs within the new acquisition group show the evocative landscapes of South Uist, for instance a loch and lilies, a croft, and ropes and a buoy used by the local fishermen.

Paul Strand (1890-1976). Norman Douglas, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 14.6 x 11.4 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976).
Norman Douglas, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 14.6 x 11.4 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976). John Angus MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 14.6 x 11.4 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976).
John Angus MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 14.6 x 11.4 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

In the 1950s, during the Cold War, Uist was announced as the future site for a rocket launch facility, and many of the photos Strand took during his time on the island reflect a concern amongst many artists and folklorists to ‘salvage’ oral Gaelic culture amid the thread of a militarised modernity. He believed these islanders represented the universal struggle of humanity and sequenced the images within Tìr a Mhurain in such a way as to evoke the heroic, yet remote lives of the dwindling population: when he visited South Uist in the mid-1950s the population was 3764; at the last census in 2011 it was 1754.

The completed publication came out in 1962 and featured an introductory essay by British historian Basil Davidson, who explained the precarious existence of the islanders against a backdrop of history, geography and social anthropology.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Peggy MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Peggy MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Loch and Lilies, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Loch and Lilies, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Ropes and Buoy, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 24.1 x 19.3 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Ropes and Buoy, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 24.1 x 19.3 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

One of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, with a career that spanned sixty years, Paul Strand was born in New York in 1890 and received his first camera at the age of 12. Whilst a student of renowned documentary photographer Lewis W. Hine in New York, from 1904-08, Strand visited the 291 Gallery which promoted pioneering photographers and introduced some of the most avant-garde European artists to American audiences. By 1916, Strand had a solo show at 291 Gallery, whose owner Stieglitz declared the images “pure” and “direct”. In 1945 Strand was given a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, but having become more political he now came under scrutiny as McCarthyism swept America, and he went into exile in France. During this time period he began working on a series of photo essays in search of an ideal community or village that espoused certain moral values he wanted to record with the camera, which eventually led to his visit to South Uist in 1954. His breakthrough, abstract experiments in the 1910s heralded photography’s importance as a modern art form, but it was his portraits of ordinary people that increased his popular appeal. Strand died in 1976 at Orgeval, France.

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Rock by the Sea, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 24.1 x 19.3 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Rock by the Sea, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 24.1 x 19.3 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Speaking of the acquisition, Christopher Baker, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery said: “These works are an important contribution to broadening our international holdings of photography, while the distinct Scottish subject matter relates to the larger mission for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in representing the people and topography of Scotland.”

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Mrs. Archie MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Mrs. Archie MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976) House, Kilpheder, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 19.3 x 24.1 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
House, Kilpheder, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 19.3 x 24.1 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “Paul Strand was a photographic pioneer but he is under-represented in UK collections and not at all in Scotland, so we are very pleased to support this acquisition for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. This series of remarkable images from the Hebrides has an especially important resonance for the Gallery’s collections, and furthermore will sit well alongside works in the permanent collection by photographers influenced by Strand.”

 

The Art Fund

The Art Fund is the national fundraising charity for art. In the past five years the Art Fund has given £34 million to help museums and galleries acquire works of art for their collections. The Art Fund also helps museums share their collections with wider audiences by supporting a range of tours and exhibitions, including ARTIST ROOMS and the 2013-18 Aspire tour of Tate’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable, and makes additional grants to support the training and professional development of curators.

The Art Fund is independently funded, with the core its income provided by 117,000 members who receive the National Art Pass and enjoy free entry to over 230 museums, galleries and historic places across the UK, as well as 50% off entry to major exhibition. In addition to grant-giving, the Art Fund’s support for museums includes the annual Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year, a publications programme and a range of digital platforms.

Find out more about the Art Fund and the National Art Pass at www.artfund.org

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Paul Strand’s Hebrides: subtle, sensitive with a dash of Marxist steel

Paul Strand‘s book of Hebridean photographs, ‘Tir a’Mhurian‘, was published fifty years ago this month. In The Guardian’s Scottish Blog Fraser MacDonald, of Edinburgh university, reviews it’s relevance and the background to Strand’s project. By kind permission of Fraser MacDonald, and The Guardian we republish his article here.

Paul Strand and Basil Davidson’s ‘Tir a’Mhurain’, MacGibbon & Kee Limited, 1962.

 

Paul Strand’s Hebrides: subtle, sensitive with a dash of Marxist steel

There are more than a few odd things about Paul Strand’s book of Hebridean photographs Tir a’Mhurain which was first published 50 years ago this month.

Consider, for instance, this remarkable coincidence: a notable Marxist photographer, an exile from McCathyite America with the FBI on his trail, arrived in South Uist within weeks of a secret survey of the island as a possible testing range for America’s new nuclear missile.

What about Strand’s blind insistence, at the height of the cold war, that his book only be printed in Leipzig, East Germany? He cited technical rather than political reasons, favouring a special print process that was only available on the other side of the iron curtain.

Another oddity: when looking for an author to write the accompanying text to Tir a’Mhurain (Gaelic for Land of the Bendy Grass), he rejected many eminent Scottish writers (Hamish Henderson, Neil M. Gunn and Sir Compton Mackenzie) in favour of an English journalist. Basil Davidson (who died in 2010) ended up writing a pitch perfect commentary but until this commission he had never even been to the Hebrides.

Tir a’Mhurain is as strange a book as all of this might suggest.

Strange too is that this is a work of high Modernism with an affinity for folk culture. It embodies a steely Marxist aesthetic but remains subtle and sensitive to the individual islander. And though now neglected, it is surely one of the most important moments in the portraiture of Scotland.

Strand certainly thought so. Not given to self doubt, he ranked himself third in the pantheon of world photographers, after Scotland’s David Octavius Hill and the Frenchman Eugène Atget.

This sort of egotism is not particularly attractive but nor is it entirely wide of the mark; within the history of Scotland’s photography, only Hill has a prior claim to significance.

Yet even now Paul Strand does not get the recognition he deserves, at least not on this side of the Atlantic. Imagine if Strand’s colleague Ansel Adams had shot a Scottish Highland portfolio? The emporiums of Scottishness on the Royal Mile would be brimming over with the supersized prints and calendars.

Strand’s work is rather less accessible. It was always expensive for one thing – ostensibly because of his belief in the integrity of the photographic print as an original artwork. He berated Adams for allowing his work to be reproduced in poster form though it was precisely this strategy that sealed Adams’ reputation as America’s pre-eminent landscape photographer.

Strand’s landscapes make no bid for Adams’ sublime grandeur. They have a depth that is less yielding to a casual glance; he makes us work to think about the relations between and within images – the ties of labour that bind Hebrideans to the landscapes of their making.

Tir a’Mhurain was in many ways a political project in the guise of an ethnographic one. He pictured locally celebrated tradition bearers – the bards and storytellers – and he did so straight; no tricks.

As Davidson observed, “We are looking at subjects not objects; but these same subjects are also looking back at us, again at us as subjects, with the same intense equality of interest.”

Outraged by what he saw as an aggressive Nato militarism, Strand originally conceived of Tir a’Mhurain as, in part, a protest against the development of the rocket range in South Uist.

But by the time the book was finished, the rocket range was already a done deal and the Corporal missile – the world’s first nuclear missile – was soaring high over the Atlantic towards St Kilda.

With bleak timing, the book was published just weeks before the Cuban missile crisis when the world came closest to the scenario of “mutually assured destruction”. It was in these dark days of the cold war that Strand held out his vision of Hebridean community as an inspiration. But his own native land was having none of it.

The United States banned the book unless imported copies bore an obvious stamp ‘Printed in Germany, USSR occupied’ – a stipulation to which they knew Strand would never consent.

As a committed communist, Strand was often at odds with the political climate. That history didn’t exactly go Strand’s way is evident by the fact that, long after the end of the cold war, the South Uist rocket range is still open for business – though as a privatized industry now run by defence corporations.

But still the photos remain – evocative portraits of Scottish lives and landscapes under the shadow of the bomb.

– Fraser MacDonald.

Follow Fraser MacDonald on Twitter, and on his blog Modern Lives, Modern Landscape.

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