Deciding what image to write about has proved tricky for me. I am beset by confusion as to when “historical” photography became contemporary portraiture. There’s a reason for this concern, as early photographic portraiture was very similar to painted portraiture, and when they began to diverge, photographic portraiture went through various styles, a process which continues up to the present. This Wiki article is a good starting point for further research on the evolution of styles.
I therefore decided I had to pick a period or a photographer and discuss the work within the context that was prevalent at the time it was made. The image I have selected is Paul Strand’s Jeune Garçon, Charente, 1951.
The image depicts a teenage boy, dressed in overalls, with a knitted vest underneath. He is shown head and shoulders, against a background of wooden panelling, maybe a wooden fence or wall. The boy, who is unnamed, stares straight into the camera lens, with an expression which looks implacable, almost angry and at the same time, somewhat bemused. One can imagine him being annoyed to be asked for his photograph, but grudgingly agreeing. Both his face and his clothes are scrupulously clean and new, which gives the image an air of being a fashion portrait. Indeed, its style has been copied by later fashion photographers, for example Peter Lindbergh’s 1994 portrait of Kate Moss in overalls shown below.
Strand was American, and a protégé of Alfred Steiglitz between the wars. His work has often been overlooked as he was interested in photographing everything and had no particularly recognisable style. Sadly I did not get to see his recent exhibition at the V&A, but I am drawn to his later images of the Outer Hebrides, rural France and other remote locations. In these images, he mixes landscapes with portraits of the people who inhabit them. The images are arresting – beautiful, very tonal and with an overwhelming sense of place. They have an authenticity which indicates an in-depth understanding of the communities he photographed. An excellent video clip accompanying the V&A exhibition explains that he took his time about making his images, and worked collaboratively with poets and writes to produce works which are initially unassuming but which repay some time given to slowly work through and appreciate them.
I intend to come back to Strand’s work as I progress with the course, as I find it very moving. I’m also pleased to read that his book on the Outer Hebrides is being reprinted this year, and look forward to receiving a copy when it is published.