PRINT February 1968


Paul Strand, The Mexican Portfolio, Paul Caponigro, and Photography in the Twentieth Century

Paul Strand, The Mexican Portfolio (Da Capo Press For Aperture, Inc.), 20 hand-pulled gravure plates, 4-page text in portfolio with slipcase, 12 1/2” X 16”, edition of 1000 numbered and signed copies.

Paul Strand’s Mexican Portfolio, an incredibly beautiful group of photographs taken during the early thirties, was issued in 1940 in a limited subscription (250 copies) edition. The volume has been unavailable in any form since that time. This year, Aperture, Inc., publisher of the quarterly of photography, has produced a new signed edition of 1000 copies for the Da Capo press. The portfolio includes twenty hand-pulled gravure prints made from the original plates, under the personal supervision of Paul Strand, and Michael Hoffman, Aperture publisher. (It was quite fortunate that printers could be found who could still duplicate the original gravure process, as the earlier company was no longer functioning. The technical results are no less than exquisite, but one doesn’t hesitate to assure that this is only a service to, and not a replacement for the visual artistry and sensitivity of the pictures themselves.) A reprint of the 1940 foreword by Leo Hurwitz, Strand’s note on the second edition, and a statement by David Alfaro Siqueiros accompany the photographs. In my opinion, these fine prints suffer no disappointing reappraisals.

Strand, paralleling the view of the Mexican muralists in his opposition to formalism, provides an eloquent illumination of Mexico’s peasants and their lives, pervaded always by a somber religiosity. Reflected in their icons, churches, courtyards and faces, is an enduring and integral sense of belonging, inevitably, to each other—a sense which the collection of photographs enhances all the more. The photographer no doubt perceived that the religious figures and the people were in spirit, one and the same. One of the most compelling features of the portfolio is the constant mirror-like reflections which occur between the gentle, searching, yet accepting looks on the faces of the men and women, and the similar expressions of the Madonna, saints or Christ icons. The Virgin of San Felipe, Oaxaca and a Woman of Patzcuaro, or a Man with a Hoe, Los Remedios and a Man from Tenancingo alongside of the Cristo with Thorns, Huexotla, are only a few examples of these analogies, which are phased throughout the volume, and which make it a constant source of both humanistic and pictorial interest.

Despite the fervently graphic and often tender emotionalism of some of the images—in particular, those of the bleeding crucifixions and lamentations—one never feels that Strand’s pictures of them resort to an overwrought or melodramatic statement, as they easily might have in the hands of a lesser talent. The barest essentials are observed, never blatantly meaningful, for the sake of meaning itself, but still deeply felt. The approach, in fact, both to forms and subjects is so classically straightforward, and so possessed of a silent dignity (it would seem, even, in contradistinction to the subjects) that one wonders how much of this is the process of the photographer’s own vision, imbuing his subject matter with his own particular respects and feelings, or to what extent they themselves possess these qualities. Perhaps it is idle speculation, but the question is certainly one of the components involved in an appreciation of the photographs in the portfolio. The pictures are deceptive, in that they show the peasants in only their most profoundly noble attitudes. That is, Strand has deliberately excluded the record of the people involved in daily domestic activities, working in the fields, or gossiping and vending in the market places or plazas. There is nothing to suggest anything so demeaning as poverty, squalor, or worldly involvement, as such. Yet one feels, that because of the closeness, even smallness, of Strand’s frame of reference, he has penetrated to an extraordinary depth. The photographs lack, for instance, the expansive breadth or bravado of an Ansel Adams, or the warmth and ebullience of a Cartier-Bresson, but their scope is by no means limited. The world of these Indian peasants is a small one, but what it consists of—the earth, the family, the faith—is of a depth which had not escaped Strand’s lens. The single figures—men leaning in doorways, or seated women and children simply staring pleadingly or curiously into the camera—draw a great space and stillness around themselves, for all the concentrated nearness of the pictorial composition. They have a presence that is so undeniably identified with and expressive of their environment, that in spite of its actual physical absence from many of the prints (save for a few fragmentary settings), one small boy can personify the land as a whole, or one starkly lit church facade does superbly portray the people and faith that built it. One regrets that there are only twenty prints, not because they represent an incomplete vision, but simply because they are all so beautiful and telling.

Paul Caponigro, An Aperture Monograph, 60 photographs, letterpress, chronology and bibliography, 8” X 9 1/2”.

Aperture magazine has published one of its periodic monographs, containing about sixty of Paul Caponigro’s recent works. Photographic reproduction is up to the quarterly’s usual high standards, done in letterpress, 150-line screen engraving. Aside from several brief but valuable comments by the photographer, the pictorial images are allowed to speak for themselves, if one could actually say they do anything so obvious as that. Caponigro takes a firm place in the Stieglitz tradition, furthered in his studies, since 1957, with Minor White. But this is not to imply that the work resembles his mentors’, or is somehow boring because of this. These pictures are subtle and detailed, and the prints are as fine and fragile as the images they reflect. I have always been intrigued by the radiant quietude in the textures and patterns of Caponigro’s rock walls, slender greyed trees, or glistening pools; and, perhaps, this is simply a part of what the photographer has recorded of his own mysterious attraction for his subjects. His experience with his camera and nature, and his sensual intuitions of form and light are a constant and careful probing for a means of self explanation.

Despite the sureness and clarity of technique, the images are always somewhat equivocal, an effort to see things in their essence, yet a discovery of their unique sense of “otherness” as well. The first time one sees a full-sized print of the Apple (1964), for instance, it is difficult to actually see the image as a fruit, the illusion of a galactic space, scattered with constellations of stars and clouds being so strong across its dark surface. Although the subjects are in many cases more recognizable objects and scenes (leaves, coronas of flower petals, beaches, eddying water, forest foliage), the allusiveness of the vision which controls them is poetic in the most inward, but strangely evocative manner. Caponigro’s visual metaphors establish their presence emphatically, but never aggressively. The modest and tasteful format of this volume suits their expression admirably well.

Photography In The Twentieth Century, ed. Nathan Lyons (George Eastman House, Horizon Press), 160 pages, 155 plates (letterpress).

Photography in the Twentieth Century is a well put together anthology of 150 photographs covering about sixty years in the development of the art and craft of this medium. Included are many well known older photographers, both familiar and lesser known pictures by Berenice Abbott, Eugene Atget, Ansel Adams, Brassai, Laszlo Moholy Nagy, Charles Sheeler, Alvin L. Coburn, Aaron Siskind, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, to name some examples. Fortunately,these more famous personalities are balanced out by many works by a younger generation of photographers who have not had as much recognition, and are just beginning to establish reputations, such as Gary Wino grad, Jerry Uelsmann, Ray Metzker, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and others.

The letterpress reproduction obtains some beautiful silvery greys, soft whites, and rich blacks, and the prints are paired with exceptional care and sensitivity. For instance, Charles Sheeler’s pristine formal study of ship funnels (1927) is nicely complemented by the purity and grace of Imogen Cunningham’s Magnolia Bud (1929), a white-on-black reversal of Sheeler’s strong silhouettes. Arthur Rothstein’s Livery Stable (1939), the side of a wooden barn checkered with peeling posters, is an interesting document of the rural scene as well as a purely visual experience in texture. It sits well alongside Margaret Bourke-White’s At the Time of the Louisville Flood, (1937). In the latter picture a group of Negroes waiting for food rations queue up beneath a gigantic, typically 1930s propaganda billboard announcing the merits of “The American Way,” with its well-scrubbed middle class white family packed into the old jalopy with kiddies and dog. The chronological arrangement especially helps to illuminate the images and feeling characteristic of each period covered by the photographs.

In this respect, the inclusion of a group of pictorially “abstract” works, done in the early sixties reveals one of the basic and still widely practiced misinterpretations of the medium. These are the prints of Nicholas Hlobeczy, Jack Stuler, Jaromir Stephany, James Hilbrandt, Nicholas Dean, and Joseph Jachna, to name only a few. Their works represent a confusion between the essential functions and means of abstract painting and those of photography. Photographs do not necessarily have to be a “direct reflection of a traditional realistic construct” as the introduction points out. But neither can they appropriate to themselves properties which are inconsistent with the very nature of the process which is used to make them. It is a mistaken assumption that photographs (as recent, though vastly more successful attempts in painting have proved) can become absolutely flat, as these men have tried to make them appear. A photograph is a record of not only a moment or continuity of moments in time, but in space as well. A picture made with the camera can distort, telescope or redefine certain kinds of space, but it cannot abandon it altogether. It is impossible to take a picture without some amount of space between the subject and the lens. The effort to contradict and eliminate this essential fact in the finished print results in only the most mediocre and confusing pictures.

Perhaps the most curious flaw in the volume is the inclusion of several photographs which were made in color, but printed here in black and white. These are by Henry Holmes Smith, Dan Budnick, Dennis Stock, and Ernst Haas, among others (the latter suffering least by the transformation). It seems to point out a problem in publishing costs, which are as expensive a proposition as color photography is itself. This is the major, and really unfortunate reason why so few photographers are able to experiment at all in this unexplored area of the medium, outside of a commercial context. In spite of these few detractions, this is a fine edition, and a well chosen, if spare survey, quite worth owning.

Emily Wasserman