LETTERS FROM FRANCE AND ITALY
Note: For the last several years Paul Strand has been living and working in Europe. From Paris, where he has an apartment, he has gone travelling in many countries. As he did in his native New York, in the Gaspe, in Colorado, Mexico, New Mexico and New England, he goes on searching for the ?matrix of a country, for what shapes the basic character of a land and a people.
His approach is unlike that of any other major photographer working today. He takes his time. He avoids the picturesque, the famous, the ephemeral and the newsworthy; he goes down the back ways to fnd the humble and the common. He goes and looks, then comes away and lets what he has seen sink in. Then he goes back. Maybe this time, maybe the next, whenever he feels ready, he takes along his 8 x 10 with the bellows lenshood and the 3x7 Graflex masked down to the squarer proportion of 5 x 6V2. He is relentless; he will not stop until he has seen on the groundglass the ultimate image of a place or a person that is in him to see. Nor, later, will he stop before he has made from that image the richest print it is in him to make. He is not a technician; he prefers the simplest means. But he will resort to any technique, whether banal as a snapshot or complex beyond most photographers endurance, to get what he wants.
His roots are deep in the oldest and greatest tradition in photography; he judges by the severe and vital canons of all art. The concepts he works for he has made his own.
The photographs here reproduced from the collection of the George Eastman House represent his work in France. Three: Young Boy, Charente, Harness, Haut Rhin, and Cafe du Commerce, Nievre, appear in his book, LA FRANCE DE PROFIL, published in Lausanne in 1952, with text by the French poet, critic and novelist, Claude Roy. LA FRANCE DE PROFIL may be purchased in the United States from Wittenborn and Co., 38 East 57th Street, New York City 22. $6.00, plus $.25 shipping charges. The following excerpts are from letters written to friends in America during the last six months. They were written in haste, with no thought to publication, in the midst of looking back on work just finished and undertaking new work. N. N.
• First about the evening with Braque. Actually he did much more looking than talking—the kind of looking that doesn’t miss anything either in one’s intention or the photograph itself. He was, I think, fascinated by the complete use of everything included in the picture space—nothing neglected or glossed over. And without distortions. At one point he said, "The painters could learn much from these,” and as he was saying goodnight, "I have gotten something from your photographs for my own work.”
• The response in France has been very warm and specific towards the book [LA FRANCE DE PROFIL]. TWO reviewers spoke of it as "a family album of France.” A young poet, dedicating one of his own books to me, said, "Thank you for this revelation of my own country.” And a former sea captain: "Each Frenchman will find among your photographs 'his’ cafe, the grocery store in which he bought—his own France.” All this much better said than I remember it. But the basic feeling all through was that of finding in the things the basic reality of their country as THEY know it. NOT the superimposition of Paul Strand’s ideas about France. And that is what I had hoped I might achieve: to express the objective reality of the life around me, its special character—all personal interpretations being not only unnecessary but also false.
I heard today that the artists here want to give me some sort of testimonial reception. I won’t have time [he was leaving for Italy], but it’s nice . . . Of course everyone likes praise, but the point of that was that the book had won recognition in France which made a group of French painters want to give me, an American photographer, some acknowledgement. The praise is there but secondary.
• Hazel [Kingsbury, his wife] has been completely part of the book. Our working relationship is that close understanding and helpfulness that comes of one person seeing so closely eye to eye with another—a seeing that includes criticism as part of the deepest kind of interest. Hazel has a remarkable sensitivity, and though she would always photograph very differently when she is working, she has the rare capacity of sensing and seeing very clearly the sort of thing I go for. The other day, for instance, she saw two things to which she called my attention. I made the photographs — but she saw the possibilities if I were interested. I definitely was.
She takes the curious out of my way; the means is her extraordinary way with people—a warmth to which they respond. And it is this that made her a very swell reportage photographer during the last war, when she worked all through Europe and finally in Japan and Korea for the Red Cross.
In our travels through France, she was the navigator, the constant map reader and researcher. She is an indefatigable explorer who will get off the main highway to the little alluring roads. And how right that is, for you can never see a country from the main highways. All this invaluable planning of hither and yon was hers.
• I think the story of our work with the printers in Lausanne is of some interest for the eventual quality of the reproductions is a direct result. Here is what happened in this big and very busy commercial plant. First, assuring me they never did such a thing, they allowed me to go over every negative with the man who made the positives, to point out what needed to be held back or printed in. Later I saw and passed on the positives. However, when we saw the first proofs in dead matte (ordinary) gravure, they were a great disappointment—really lifeless. What to do? Remembering my experience with the Mexican portfolio [Strand, with the aid of friends, varnished every gravure by hand] I told the young director about the varnish. He said it was possible to print a varnish on the gravures by running them through the press a second time. Would they show me? Yes, of course. So they spent several hours making proofs—the first too glossy, cutting the varnish with thinner—until we got an absolutely beautiful result. We were all standing about—the director, the printer, the maker of the positives—all interested and happy. At this point, the director remarked that this would just about double the cost of the book and that the publisher couldn’t accept such an increase. Before even our hearts could sink, the printer—just a working man in the plant—said, "Yes, but we can get almost the same result with brilliant ink." He hurried away to prove it—and prove it he did. The publisher came over, saw the results, accepted them, and we were in the clear—everybody happy. This busy plant gave a whole afternoon of time to the working out of the problem! Incidentally, publishers see only the best prints. After that [I make] what I call work prints, to be used for making the dummy and for the writer to play with.
• Italy begins to point to a new book, but there is much to be done. It becomes clearer all the time that the getting to know a country and its people requires more than a few months. One has to see, digest, and see again. A year’s work cut out.
[Cesare] Zavattini—the most eminent of film writers in Italy—a man of middle age, very warm, human, and a poet in his response to life. All qualities I think are necessary to have in a collaborator. His films—just a few of the many: FOUR STEPS IN THE CLOUDS, BICYCLE THIEF, MIRACLE IN MILAN, UMBERTO D.
Some of my first gatherings in Italy were very good, but the big work lies ahead. Zavattini is now thoroughly excited and will work directly with me in the Spring—the writer developing the material at the same time as the photographer. Here he will contact chiefly people, for this will be largely a book about people, of course including the environs in which they live.
• Our first rainy day—no work—but a chance to write you and others. For we have been going hard and continuously at the task. Zavattini returned to Rome after spending some very fruitful days with us during which essential things were accomplished in planning and above all meeting people. This is his birthplace, the village of Luzzara, where he is much loved and, of course, honored. So everybody knows about our project — folks standing all around in the local cafe as he talked about it. This is I think a right and happy way to approach this sort of a book.
This is the completely ;zo«-picturesque part of Italy, with even less of memorial monuments than New England. The country flat—the river— the myriad of many farms—the design of many fields—poplar and vines. It is tough, but begins to reveal itself in many ways. The people are wonderful—very friendly and warm—ready always to help in any way we ask. So we will see!
I think the portraits in the French book carry on what I started in New York in 1915—then in Mexico, and later in New England. Here in Italy even more so. The concept behind this phase is different from that of the documentary or shall we say candid approach. I do not seek the special moment, the special expression or activity.
Since Van Gogh and Cezanne, portraiture in painting is almost a lost art. I mean a portrait in the sense that a person completely unknown to the world at large—not connected with those who will see the painting or photograph, has a living quality, nonetheless, as full as say, the Cobweb with Dew; in short, there is no necessity to be acquainted with the subject in order to have from the portrait complete esthetic and human satisfaction. Of course, Hill did this consummately. Also Stieglitz. I do not say this kind of portraiture invalidates the candid point of view. It is just different, very difficult and challenging. It is one thing to photograph people; it is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness. The old masters did this as though it was the most natural thing to do, and with the greatest simplicity of means. This book travels that road, or at least tries to. Before I leave I shall have photographed more than forty people—old, middle aged, young—children, men and women. Among much else, of course.
• Terrific housecleaning is going on before I go into the darkroom with some five hundred negatives to develop. Hazel’s minute and careful records show portraits, landscapes, etc., etc.—the names of every person photographed. If it measures up to what was on the groundglass, it will be all right.
• Having just come up for after three weeks steady in the darkroom, I take first chance to thank you for your letter and what you say about LA FRANCE DE PROFIL. I am glad you find in this the things you speak about, for they are a great part of the test which all works of art in any medium must meet and which I think transcend both time and place.
Personally, I shall be sixty-three this year, and I haven’t time to do more than stick to my own last, be ever more critical of what I do, and face up to the photographic and esthetic problems which life itself presents. The deeper one goes into the latter, the tougher the problems to solve, is it n0t SO'