White Fence: The Bridge Between Past and Future

© Paul Strand 1916

© Paul Strand 1916

Paul Strand was born in New York City in 1890 to Jewish Bohemian immigrants. During his childhood, he witnessed the rapid expansion and industrialization of the city. Strand’s parents owned a summer cottage in Connecticut and Strand spent many of his summers there. This contrast between city and country is evident in the above photo “White Fence.”

In this photo, the fence is the only fully clear object. It stands prominently in the foreground, encompassing the entire length of the frame. Behind it lies a barn and what appears to be a small farm. Upon closer observation, one can tell that behind the barn lies a another fence and a house, perhaps suggesting that the farm is not large. Strand’s vantage point when taking this photo is interesting because it sets the fence as a border between the viewer and the farm, and further between the farm and the house.

Strand grew up seeing the industrialization of the Northeast and the destruction of the pastoral way of life. His summers spent in Connecticut granted him a view of the country contrasting to the time spent in the hustle and bustle of New York. The white fence acts as a bridge between the country–the old ways of life–and what we cannot see before it.

The early 1900s were a turning point for Jewish immigrants. Forced to trade their pastoral, simpler lifestyles for the merchant and peddler jobs in New York City, they stood before the white fence. They, like Strand, stood in front of the fence, looking back on their old customs, old traditions, and old lives. Many had trouble looking forward, adopting the customs and mannerisms of the New World.
This photo encompasses their struggles to adopt to their new lives. The fence, the present, is the only clear object in the photo. It is the only tangible entity in the photo, the only one with vibrancy and detail. The barn that lies behind it, while not blurry, is dark and more difficult to make out. Just like the past, one can look upon it, but never fully relive it. Emigrating from Bohemia, Strand’s parents had their share of struggles adopting to their new lives in the city. They must have looked behind the white fence, at their pasts which lied in the dark, and were unable to see the future, the space not captured by Strand’s lens. This embodies many of the experiences of Jewish immigrants of the era. Leaving their shtetls–small Jewish farming communities in Eastern Europe–behind, they could only clearly make out the present and were unable to see beyond to the future.