Utopia Behind Bars: Paul Strand and his “Fense”

© Paul Strand 1916

© Paul Strand 1916

Born in 1890 to Bohemian parents in New York City, Paul Strand was a force in the establishment of photography as an art form. His early modernist work remains to this day influential, and is easily his most recognizable work. His abstractions, such as “The Fense” above, depict both country and city life, both of which he spent significant time examining through photography.

His early focus on straight lines and blocks of color is prevalent throughout his work. However, “The Fense” stands out as distinct among his many widely recognizable photographs as it is set outside New York City, perhaps foreshadowing his move to the French countryside later in life. “The Fense” shows a pleasant farm scene, speaking to his disdain with rampant commercial farming that had exploded in his lifetime. The shadows engulfing the family-style farm lends itself to the destruction of family farming in the early twentieth century. The fence further divides the viewer from the scene, symbolizing the shiny, new industry, as it was portrayed to the America public.

To Strand, the rapid expansion of industrialism in New York was criminal. The pollution, poor living conditions, and overcrowding were all potent reminders of the life they had come to replace. Strand’s parents had come from a simple life in the country, trading the ease of agriculture for the strife of the city. Strand spent many summers in Connecticut at his parent’s summer cottage, and these were the times in his life that he truly enjoyed. The freedom of the country, without smoke and noise, was Strand’s idea of the utopian lifestyle. His later documentation of city life (see: Manhatta) demonstrates his view of city life. Blurry, fast paced, and overwhelming, New York City was the institution with which Strand fought for years. “The Fense” is the polar opposite to the misery of the city: a life in which the worries of the city vanish. However, it is also the prison in which Strand is held, unable to live out his agricultural fantasy.

Throughout his life, Strand kept close company with significant members of the Communist Party, even going as far to insist that all of his books be published in Germany, even though doing so forbade them from sale in the United States in accordance with its anti-communist trade policy. His disgust with industry naturally leads to these extreme-liberal leanings, even so far as Strand eventually leaving the Unite States for France. “The Fense” is the beginning of this journey, the first leap away from his American-immigrant upbringing and towards an all-out rejection of industrial life.