New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

An American in Mexico
Paul Strand
Paul Strand in Mexico
Reviewer #1
Paul Strand

Paul Strand has an unquestioned importance to the development of photography in the twentieth century. From his highly abstracted images from the teens and twenties (just think of ‘Wall Street’) through his more realistic images of Europe after World War Two, he has produced iconic images that have influenced just about every serious photographer in the world. The current show at Aperture concentrates however on what may well be considered the low point of his creative career, the years in the early thirties when he traveled to Mexico.

These were different times, and the American Strand was quickly appointed to be the Director of the Department of Photography and Film in the Mexican Secretariat of Public Education. Strand is quoted as leaving his "usual working methods at the border." (Getty Museum web site) and indeed took up using a camera with a trick 90° lens that let him photograph people standing to his side while seemingly photographing straight ahead. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of pictures of people either warily watching, or studiously not looking, at this American standing in the middle of the street with tripod and camera.

This was a time when Strand was becoming increasingly concerned with politics and the plight of the poor, and this had a profound effect on his images. In this exhibition of nearly 200 pictures, a majority of them portraits, we see not a single smile. There is not a moment when the plight of these abused peoples is not weighing heavily on their simply clad shoulders. It is a small miracle that music and dance, weaving and pottery, even food and drink itself managed to survive the immense oppression these people were under. In short, Strand allowed his political beliefs (as well meaning and even correct as they may have been) to outweigh his artistic and photographic responsibilities. We are left with a dreary set of images of people with their life drained from them with none of those delicious ambiguities and non-sequitors that make photography the revealing medium it can be. Every picture here is decidedly ‘on-message.’

“Paul Strand in Mexico” is an important show for serious scholars of American photography, documenting a time and place in our (and Mexico’s) cultural development that we are unlikely to see again. For Paul Strand fans, it can be seen as an ebb tide from which the photographer was able to come back to reach new heights in the following decades.

Paul Strand
Paul Strand in Mexico

547 W 27th St. 4th Fl
Chelsea         Map

212 505 5555

Thursday, September 9 to
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10 to 6