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  • Writer's pictureJohn A Lewis

About Looking - John Berger

Paul Strand

In this essay Berger describes the work of Paul Strand and makes the point that in Strands photographs of people he presents us with the visible evidence, not just their presence, but of their life. He goes on to say that Strand consistently takes a political position, but at a different level, such evidence serves to suggest visually the totality of another lived life, from within which we ourselves are no more than a sight.

Berger provides a clear insight into the method Strand used as a photographer which makes him unusual. His work is the antithesis to Henri Cartier-Bresson whose approach was that the photographic moment is an instant, a fraction of a second, and he stalks that instant as through it were a wild animal. By contrast the photographic moment for Strand is a biographical or historic moment, whose duration is ideally measured not by a second but by its relation to a lifetime. Strand does not pursue an instant, but encourages a moment to arise as one might encourage a story to be told.

In practical terms Strand decides what he wants before he takes the picture, never plays with the accidental, works slowly, hardly ever crops a picture, often still uses a plate camera, formally asked people to pose for him. His portraits are very frontal, the subject is looking at us; we are looking at the subject; it has been arranged like that. His camera is not free roaming; he chooses where to place it.

Where he places the camera is not where something is about to happen, but where a number of happenings will be related. Thus, without any use of anecdote, he turns his subjects into narrators.

In each case Strand, the photographer has chosen the place, to put his camera as listener.

The approach: neo-realist, the method: deliberate, frontal, formal, with every surface thoroughly scanned.

Berger goes on to analyse three pictures: Portrait of Mr Bennett, a Mexican woman and Rumanian Peasants. He remarks about their density they are filled with an unusual amount of substance per square inch. And all this substance becomes the stuff of the life of the subject. The subject is willing to say – I am as you see me.

The photographs suggest his sitters trust him to see their life story.

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