Paul Strand’s Portraits of Modernity: 1960s Ghana

If you’ve ever taken a course on the history of photography, you know Paul Strand. He’s recognized as a master of the medium, and he’s known, among other things, for helping to solidify photography as an art form when that topic was still up for debate. What you might not know about is his travel work. Though his early photography is more commonly referenced, his later projects, in-depth “portraits” of specific places, are the culmination of a lifetime of practice.

Strand pursued these “place portraits” for the last three decades of his life, electing to photograph locations where he felt “really compelling things were happening.” The projects were typically conceived as books and viewed as a whole they serve a larger purpose. “If you look at all of these travel projects together, they add up to a portrait of the 20th century,” explains Peter Barberie, the Broadsky Curator of Photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art which is featuring a retrospective of Strand’s six-decade career in an upcoming exhibition.

Of all the places Strand worked—New England, France, Italy, the Hebrides, Romania, Egypt, Morocco—Barberie posits that his time in Ghana in 1963 and 1964, which resulted in the book Ghana: An African Portrait, yielded some of his most comprehensive travel work. He suggests that Strand felt the same way, referencing a letter where Strand wrote that in Ghana, he “felt he had gone deeper into his subject than maybe anywhere else.” This was partly because Strand felt welcome there. He was officially invited to document the country by its first prime minister and president, Kwame Nkrumah. He was given a guide (whom he actually dismissed) and a driver, Bannerman Smith (who then served as his guide), to accompany him and his wife Hazel through Ghana’s diverse landscapes, easing his access to situations that might have otherwise been difficult to broach.

With its recent independence from colonial rule, Ghana was an ideal location for Strand. Things were changing quickly there, and he was interested in Nkrumah’s efforts to modernize the country through industry and economic initiatives. “Strand was really drawn to the way photography can show the past and the present working together, struggling around each other. He was interested in the specific history of individual people in individual places, and part of the way to show that was to show the present emerging from the past,” explains Barberie.

There were several motifs that Strand sought—landscapes, architecture, portraiture, street scenes, artifacts such as crafts, and details like rocks and foliage. “Through the ‘20s and ‘30s he gathered these motifs and realized if he used them all together, this is what allowed him to make a portrait of a place,” says Barberie.

Strand wanted to show us that “modernity isn’t about just one thing, not about being in a cafe in Paris, or on Madison Avenue, or on an airplane going somewhere,” explains Barberie.

“I often compare a photo of a student with books on her head and another photo of an elderly woman from the northern part of the country. The woman is identified as a political leader and she explains, in the course of her interview, that she regrets that she’s never had time to learn to read and write. So if you’re looking carefully, you realize that between the portrait of the girl in Accra with the books on her head and the women in the northern part of the country, you can see what it’s like in Ghana and where these two different people have come from. That’s really special access to that time and place, and very few photographers took the time to give us that kind of encounter with that kind of place and people.”

The exhibition, Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography, is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from October 21, 2014 to January 4, 2015.

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