Celebrating Photographer Paul Strand
At a packed gallery in New York's Chelsea art district, James Krippner projects a striking photo of a young Mexican peasant woman staring pensively off camera, seemingly unaware of or uninterested in the photographer. The work of seminal American photographer Paul Strand, the 1933 portrait adorns the cover of Krippner's new book, Paul Strand in Mexico, published by the Aperture Foundation and Mexico's Fundacion Televisa. The woman in the photo was named Susana Ortiz Cobos--a seemingly mundane detail that Krippner, chair of the history department and director of Latin-American and Iberian studies at Haverford, shows to be packed with contextual significance, not just for Strand's work, but also for the complex relationship between photography and history.
On October 15 and 16, the Aperture Foundation celebrated the publication of Krippner's book with a two-day symposium on Strand's work in Mexico featuring panels of distinguished speakers who offered additional perspectives on this short but pivotal chapter of Strand's career. The panelists included Linda Gordon, an NYU historian and author of a new biography of Dorothea Lange; Fred Ritchin, a curator of photography and the director of PixelPress; Duke University professor Esther Gabara; Mike Weaver, editor of Yale University Press' The Art of Photography 1839-1989; Latin American scholar John Mraz of the Universidad Autonoma de Puebla in Mexico; and William E. Williams, Haverford College fine arts professor and curator of photography.
In the Aperture Gallery, a related exhibition, also titled“Paul Strand in Mexico,” features over a hundred photographic works by Strand, including vintage prints; stills from his classic film, Redes (The Wave; 1936), as well as documents and ephemera related to Strand's time in Mexico. Strand, a pioneer in the then-emerging fields of art photography and social documentary, first merged those interests into a coherent whole in Mexico, where he created a carefully selected portfolio of twenty photographs, intended to document the lives of rural peasants in the aftermath of the Revolution, and a politically charged film, Redes (later released in English as The Wave), chronicling peasant fishermen who band together to form a union.
The published photographs and film have been widely studied from an artistic standpoint, but Krippner is the first to approach them in depth from a historical perspective. “There seemed to be a bit of a gap in the art history work,” he explains. “Most of it dealt with the photographs, but there was very little about archival material.” As a fluent Spanish speaker and Latin American scholar, Krippner had the background and motivation to peruse long-forgotten documents, like Strand's employment file at the Secretariat for Public Education in Mexico City. “It was still in the original manila envelope,” Krippner recalls, somewhat amazed. “It had his ID, and a lot of papers, contracts, stuff like that.” The items had been hiding in plain sight for the better part of a century.
The Aperture Foundation granted Kripner unfettered access to Strand's archive, a massive collection that the Foundation has administered since 1983. Kit Baker, Aperture's Associate Director of Development, says that much of this material has never been published, including over 200 photos and negatives from Mexico:“We had a body of work that was really not known, so this was a really unique opportunity to re-assess that,” Baker says. “And the timing was excellent because this year is the bicentennial of Mexican Independence, and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution. So there was a context in which [the book and exhibition] could be amplified.”
The multi-pronged event also supported Aperture's stewardship of Strand's legacy. “There's a sense," says Baker, "that [Strand] hasn't quite yet reached the level that he should be in terms of the canon of photographers. So we undertook this project in the hope that we could make him more prominent in the artistic canon as well.”
Through these resources, along with interviews with local authorities, scholars, and ordinary residents along Strand's travel route, Krippner pieced together a far more detailed story of Strand's time in Mexico than had ever been available before. His book paints a portrait of an exacting artist trying to document a particular time and place objectively – often using a trick camera that appeared not to be pointing at its actual subject – while carefully selecting and sequencing his images to suit his own intentions.
Among Krippner's proudest accomplishments was learning the name of Ms. Cobos, the woman on the book's cover, who played the uncredited role of a mourning mother in Redes. As the story begins, her son dies because the family could not afford to take him to a doctor; the death sets off a chain of social outrage that ultimately leads the men to form a labor union. However, the actress' wrenching sorrow in the film came all too naturally: Cobos herself was reeling from a violent confrontation with her abusive husband that very day. According to Strand, he seized that moment to shoot the funeral scene, but soon fired her from the movie over a financial dispute. Her name had been lost to the ages, until Krippner located an official who knew her identity. As a result of that discovery, Cobos' name now appears in the credits of the restored film.
“One of the things I liked about working with Aperture is that we were able to criticize [Strand],” Krippner explains. “He wasn't a saint... I think he'd be happier with a critical debate about his work, rather than everybody saying what a great guy he was. He liked to provoke.”
Haverford's John B. Hurford '60 Humanities Center sponsored twenty Haverford students to travel to New York for the symposium. The undergraduates who attended the symposium were motivated by a variety of interests. For Fine Arts major Candice Smith '11, the symposium offered insight into a master's work, as well as the chance to connect with Aperture and discuss future internship opportunities. Gina Trobiani '11, an English major who works in the Humanities Center, said the symposium's theme dovetails with her thesis on the interplay between photographic images and literary fiction. Silas Altheimer '12 came via the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, which supports minority students intending to pursue graduate study; Altheimer's focus is American history, but he cited an interest in Mexican history and Latin American studies as well.
Rachel Davis '13 is currently taking one of Krippner's Latin American history courses:“He's an incredible professor, so I wanted to hear him speak,” Davis says,“But I also worked this summer for Willie Williams in the Fine Arts department collection, and worked with Paul Strand's work. So I held it in my hands... To mix those two together was a perfect combination.”
The symposium took place among many of the photographs and documents found in Krippner's book, which will remain on exhibit at Aperture through November 13. The book itself includes all 234 photographs Strand took in Mexico during his original visit and on second trip in 1966; over half of those photos were previously unpublished. The first publication devoted to Strand's Mexican adventure, Paul Strand in Mexico also includes an essay by Mexican photo-historian Alfonso Morales, and additional commentary by Katherine Ware, Leo Hurwitz, David Alfaro Siqueros, and Anthony Montoya.
-Justin Warner '93