More Than an Item

© Paul Strand, 1916

© Paul Strand, 1916

According to Susan Sontag as mentioned in Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures “[Paul] Strand is simply the biggest, widest, most commanding talent in the history of American photography” (169).  That is a very large claim to put toward one single person in a time period when many photographers were experimenting and changing the future of photography. Nonetheless, it can at least be agreed upon that as a photographer Strand is surely important and influential, even iconic.

“Porch Shadows” is an extremely iconic photograph because of its imitation of abstract art, something Strand claims is an entire subcategory of his photographs. He did this because he wanted to better understand abstract artists and what they were doing, something few people truly understood (Brown 288-89). Thus, he tried to copy their styles in photography and experimented by photographing simple objects. This was an extremely innovative idea to photograph basic objects not in a strictly realist manner or in a strictly Pictorial manner but instead by playing with their shapes, colors, and even shadows. In his photographs he made the items more than items; they were displays of their shapes and colors.

Anyone can take photograph a chair on a porch but how many people can turn a chair into an abstract picture of interesting lines, angles, and shapes? This picture can be analyzed aesthetically to uncover what makes this picture so visually pleasing and unique. First of all, the photograph has a relatively simple color palate. The entire photograph contains only three or four varying shades of grey. This simple color palate allows an observer to look more closely at the actual shapes and lines in the photograph without being distracted by too many varying shades. Secondly, the photograph is focused but slightly off balance. This is due to the fact that the actual chair base is to the right and bottom of the photograph rather than centered. This lack of balance makes the image more complex and abstract. Moreover, the image contains two sets of parallel lines that all meet each other at sharp angles. These two components, the chair base and the shadow lines, comprise nearly the entire photograph, besides the floor on which the shadows lay. The effect these components have is to almost reduce the entire photograph to basic shapes. This makes the picture resemble cubism, helping add to the imitation of abstract art. Strand’s idea to imitate abstract art led to more than just simple pictures of simple objects. His talent allowed him to effectively mimic a form of art which was an extremely forward act for his time.

Beyond just experimenting with shapes and light in an attempt to imitate art this photograph is also iconic because it led to many other similarly styled and imitation photographs. This picture helped create a photograph style that involved making shadows a primary component of a photograph and not just the item itself. Strand is very well known for his shadow photographs and even today taking pictures of shadows is still popular. If a style created by Strand is being copied by other photographers it is clear that this photograph influenced others, thus making the picture important and iconic.

Just as Strand’s photography influenced other photographers it must be noted that Strand’s mentorship with Alfred Stieglitz was very important to his work. Strand met with Stieglitz several times throughout his career to get advice and critiques on his photographs. Eventually this led to Stieglitz displaying some of Strand’s photographs in his gallery in 1916, something that allowed Strand a lot of publicity. This helped both Strand as a modern photographer and modern photography become better known (Koetzle 169-70). Thus, this interaction between the two men most likely helped Strand and his work become iconic. It seems that it should be noted that both of these photographers were Jewish.  The 1900s were a very difficult time for Jews around the world because of increasing antisemitism and prejudice.  Perhaps it can be speculated that not only did these two form a relationship because of their shared profession but also because of their shared religion. If this speculation is true, that their mutual religion was one influence to the forming of their strong relationship, then this would speak to the fact that historically Jewish people often unite in hard times. Perhaps their work allowed these photographers to better understand the world in the 1900s but perhaps also their connections with their fellow Jews helped, especially their fellow Jewish photographers.


Related Video:

Modernism Described and More Examples of Abstract Photography (4:23-6:12)


More examples of Strand’s abstract, shadow photography:

©Paul Strand Published in Camera Work 1917

©Paul Strand
Published in Camera Work 1917

©Paul Strand, 1917

©Paul Strand, 1917











Brown, Milton. “Interview with Paul Strand 1971.” Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present. Ed. Vicki Goldberg. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. 288-90. Print.

Koetzle, Hans-Michael. “Paul Strand: Blind Woman.” Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures. Köln: Taschen, 2002. 168-75. Print.

Image Sources

Strand, Paul. New York. 1917. Photograph. Paul Strand and the Birth of Modernism in Photography. WordPress. Web. 22 Sept. 2013. <>.

Strand, Paul. Porch Shadows. 1916. Photograph. The Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute of Chicago. Web. 22 Sept. 2013. <>.

Strand, Paul. Wire Wheel. 1917. Photograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Web. 22 Sept. 2013. <>.