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Reel Life: Paul Strand's moving pictures

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A dark, inconsolable face peers out from the cover of the catalog accompanying the Art Institute's exhibit of photographs by Paul Strand. The artist's name appears above the handsome face. A man of reserve, he was so rarely photographed that you might take it as a self-portrait. Actually it's Rebecca, Strand's first wife, the woman he photographed more intimately and more often than anyone else in his life. Her long hair pulled back, she stares into her husband's camera from an unfathomable distance, estranged by a palpable sadness, a liquid glint in her eyes. The photograph (a 1922 platinum print) is exquisite. Their marriage was not.

In a film on Strand, his second wife recounts their wedding night excursion to a demimonde cabaret of cross dressers. She complains of his coldness; eventually she got him to go to her psychiatrist. She recalls their conversation afterward: "'So what did you talk about?' 'Photography.'" Yet later she wondered whether therapy "might have damaged his work."

His third wife was a photographer who worked in the darkroom alongside the perfectionist Strand, who attempted to print his work even after cataracts clouded his sight. "I hate photography now. I'm fed up," she said after he died. She remembered him at the end of his life sitting on the bed and petting a box of his prints as fondly as if it were the child he never had.

If personal commitments were difficult for Strand, political commitments were not. They found expression in a lesser-known part of his career: his collective documentary filmmaking. For many years he hired out as a commercial cinematographer, but hanging out with members of the Group Theater in New York City, he saw that theater could be run democratically and that it could convey liberal themes. In 1935 he visited Moscow, where he met director Sergey Eisenstein, and two years later founded Frontier Films to address social issues. Nevertheless, his membership in a film crew pursuing a progressive agenda contrasted sharply with his solo printing of still lifes in the darkroom.

Some of the films he worked on are being screened at the Film Center in conjunction with the Art Institute exhibit. His first film is a lyrical short made with painter Charles Sheeler in 1920. Originally titled "New York the Magnificent," this silent black-and-white visual poem was renamed Manhatta after the Walt Whitman poem it quotes. Strand's press release announced: "the photographers have tried to register directly the living forms in front of them"--not the warmest way of regarding one's urban comrades. Strand synthesized the flowing masses in the streets ("million-footed Manhattan") and the "towering geometry," exulting in the imperial splendor of Gotham's skyscrapers, steamships, and smokestacks. In one allusive montage, he frames pedestrians and tombstones in the same way.

Many scenes in this film reprise his still photographs. Wall Street (1915) combines shadowy figures passing massive windows as deep and dark as crypts. Strand later wondered how he ever froze those fast-stepping New Yorkers given the long exposure time he needed. In Manhatta he caught crowds and clouds, smoke and steam in natural flux.

But when he wrote Alfred Stieglitz six years later from Colorado, Strand scorned New York as "a distant & disagreeable ant heap," citing "its deadness and cheapness. I am sure the Americans have already introduced Coney Island into heaven. . . . But here the mountains are untouched--pure & wonderful--great."

After "aestheticizing" New York pedestrians, Strand turned to romanticizing Mexican peasants. His next film, which was sponsored by the Mexican government, depicted impoverished Mexican fishermen. In a prospectus for the film, he wrote: "In a world in which human exploitation is so general, it seems to me a further exploitation of people--however picturesque, different, and interesting to us they may appear--merely to make use of them as material." The Wave, which he finished in 1934, would strike audiences differently too. "Very sensitive minds accustomed to follow the intricacies of esthetic nuance" could be disappointed, he wrote. And the film "might even bore more complicated sensibilities."

In 1935 Strand shot part of The Plow that Broke the Plains, a pioneering documentary financed by the federal government about soil policy that linked the Depression and the dustbowl. "Our heroine is the grass, our villain the sun and the wind," said director Pare Lorentz. "It is a melodrama of nature--the tragedy of turning grass into dust." The film is a spectacular montage of farms, war, markets, timber, rivers, floods, famine, and flag waving. This poetic if bombastic film premiered in Washington, D.C., alongside Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and was scorned by Hollywood distributors as socialist art, tainted by government backing.

It's Up to You (1943) is another government-sponsored film Strand worked on that has aged weirdly. A puzzled farmer standing in his field hears voices ("Listen, farmer") imploring him to up his productivity ("But come on, farmer, you don't have time to think!") so he can feed an old lady in wartime England ("Never heard of her," the farmer protests). Another voice joins in. "Hey farmer! Get going. I'm hungry." "That's a U.S. Marine" explains the narrator. Scolding a lady shopping for red meat on the black market, the movie ends with a rationing pitch sung by the Down Town Glee Club--"It's up to you, mister / It's up to you, sister."

The first project of Frontier Films was Heart of Spain (1937), which had a credit reading "Material Scenarized & Edited by Paul Strand." This stirring report on the international volunteers fighting "to make Madrid the tomb of fascism" focuses on blood donated, blood refrigerated, blood transported, and blood transfused into the veins of the wounded. When a nurse dresses a grisly wound blamed on Mussolini's bullets, the narrator commands, "Don't turn away! This is neutrality. This is nonintervention, Italian style."

Strand's most intriguing film is Native Land (1942), narrated by Paul Robeson. It rehearses the findings of a Senate investigation into a big-business conspiracy to sabotage union organizing, arguing that fascists were jeopardizing the Bill of Rights by assassinating labor leaders: a conspiracy "masterminded by a handful of fascist-minded corporate heads." This plot is illustrated in a trio of melodramatic vignettes footnoted with newsreel evidence. The last project of Frontier Films, it came out just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With the national mood swinging toward tolerating the interring of Japanese Americans, a reminder of suppressed civil rights did not play in Peoria. Yet Time was still willing to call it "as vitally American as Carl Sandburg."

Collective art making finally wearied Strand. After the war, until his death in 1976, he devoted himself solely to still photography, focusing on village life in New England and then abroad; he settled in France after he decided the spirit of Senator McCarthy was polluting American culture. In 1947 the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals alerted the industry to "how communistic touches are slanted in feature pictures." The alliance urged, "Don't smear industrialists . . . wealth . . . the profit motive . . . success. . . . Don't glorify the collective. . . . Don't smear an independent man." In the end Strand--a very independent man--tended a pristine garden in France, where he photographed flowers, not faces or fascists.

These films are showing in two programs at the Film Center, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Manhatta, The Wave, Heart of Spain, and It's Up to You will run Sunday, June 2, at 2 PM, and Tuesday, July 9, at 6 PM. The Plow That Broke the Plains and Native Land will run Sunday, June 16, at 2 PM, and Tuesday, July 23, at 6 PM. A film on Strand's life, Strand--Under the Dark Cloth (directed by John Walker), will show on Tuesday, June 18 and 25, at 6 PM. Tickets are $5, $3 for members; call 443-3737.

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