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Study visit review: The studium of Paul Strand

An enjoyable morning with OCA students at ‘Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century’ at the V&A on Saturday. Thanks to Kate and Amano who have already sent me links to their log posts. I enjoyed reading them and strongly recommend you to check them out.

After the show we had a good hour talking about the work over a cup of coffee in the breezy and dazzling V&A garden. I was asked by some of the group to write something for the OCA blog, which I have to admit, has been quite difficult. I was moved and even amazed by some of the photographs on show but I found that I still didn’t have any particular position to Paul Strand, or to his documentary legacy. So I’m offering my own brief thoughts below as just one voice in the dialogue. Please use the comments to add your own responses and learning log links.

Portrait, Washington Square Park (1917)

I responded most strongly to the early work, which were basically studies in form, and I looked up Clive Bell’s ‘The Aesthetic Hypothesis’ (1914) to try and find out what exactly ‘significant form’ meant for modernism at that time. The subdued ‘metallic’ surfaces, the lack of intimacy, the intensity and formal clarity led me to think that what interested in me in Strand, unfashionably I know, was his taste or ‘studium’. But when I consulted my Camera Lucida I found that it wasn’t really ‘studium’ that I meant. For Barthes, the studium is an ‘inconsequential taste… of the order of liking rather than loving’. But in the early work Strand’s taste is more than that – there’s presence (see the lady above). From this point I understood better how I felt about the post war work as well, which with a few exceptions (Young Boy obviously), lacked the intensity of those early works and for me was of the order of liking, not loving. Unfortunately, taste is not in any of our courses, so far as I know, for the simple reason that it can’t be taught.

The curators also took no position (as usual), which for them is actually a position because it’s a kind of affirmation: the value of Paul Strand (and photography) is so obvious that why would we need to explain why we’re showing it? This led to some inane (for me) wall texts. Luckily you don’t need to read them.

Within our group a range of viewpoints were expressed, some informed by research, some by personal experience, others just felt in front of the work. I liked the enthusiasm – a student (dare I say it?) should be an enthusiast – but whether admirer or detractor, all added something to my experience of Paul Strand.

Robert Bloomfield, OCA Tutor.

Image Credit: Paul Strand. Portrait, Washington Square Park (1917). Wikimedia Commons.

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