Paul Strand captured Vermont in black and white
MIDDLEBURY — “I like to photograph people who have strength and dignity in their faces; whatever life has done to them, it hasn’t destroyed them. I gravitate towards people like that.”
Paul Strand’s words hover over a series of black-and-white photos featuring farmers, brides and scenes of an all-too-familiar rural Vermont in the Middlebury College Museum of Art this summer.
The exhibition “Paul Strand in Vermont,” which runs through this Sunday, Aug. 7, displays some of the images that the world-famous photographer made while in Vermont from 1943 to 1946. The exhibit features 34 photographs — 28 of which are borrowed from the Philadelphia Museum of Art — and is the largest collection of Strand’s Vermont work ever displayed.
Richard Saunders, director of the Middlebury museum, curated the Strand exhibit.
“In the museum we’re always looking for ways to link important work that takes place in Vermont to the larger world,” Saunders said.
Saunders first encountered Strand’s Vermont work in “Time in New England,” a book that Strand and Nancy Newhall, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, collaborated on in 1950.
“I was interested in when was he here, why did he come, what did he decide to photograph, how did it relate to his earlier work, how did it relate to his older work, what were some of the challenges of taking photographs like these in the 1940s?” Saunders explained. “Really just, what’s this all about?”
Strand (1890-1976) produced no more than about 100 photos while in Vermont, largely limited to the area where he was staying near Brattleboro because of the size of his equipment.
The exhibit includes models of the two cameras Strand was using in Vermont, a Graflex 5 x 7-inch Home Portrait Camera and a Deardorff 8 x 10-inch view camera.
Their size — the Deardorff alone is upwards of 40 pounds — was one of Strand’s greatest challenges as he attempted to trek through Vermont’s unfamiliar terrain.
“What we were interested in doing in the show was trying to find out what some of the challenges of someone working with these bulky cameras was,” said Saunders.
According to Helen Bennett, one of Strand’s Vermont subjects, he was often seen with a wheelbarrow, carting his equipment up and down the road, taking photos of everything.
During the curatorial process, Saunders attempted to find the precise locations Strand photographed. He discovered that most of the photos were taken in a single town, on a single farm and even from a single building.
“There was the aspect of the detective work of trying to locate some of these locations,” Saunders said. “Some of it was just my sense of curiosity but then what I really realized was the more places we can identify, the more puzzle pieces fit in. You realize he’s not really traveling all over the entire state, this is very focused.”
Much of Strand’s work was inspired by his political views. Strand was an ardent supporter of the left, often voicing communist and socialist ideologies, which are reflected in his Vermont photos.
“When he came to Vermont what he was really interested in was its weathered appearance,” said Saunders. “He loved New Englanders and Vermonters because he thought they represented the character of independent people.”
Strand’s initial Vermont photos were produced specifically for a retrospective show of his own work at the MOMA in 1945. In the first retrospective show for a living artist, Strand displayed 20 of his Vermont photos to complete the 172-photo show.
After the show, Strand and Newhall decided to embark on “Time in New England.” Strand returned to Vermont for a second time to take photos that would be paired with historical texts chosen by Newhall.
During Strand’s second visit to Vermont he pushed his radical leftist agenda with even more force.
“It’s supposed to be ominous, it’s supposed to be the church and the life of early settlers,” said Saunders of one dark photo featuring only a church. “All of that fit with his ideology. It’s not a lovely summer day.”
Saunders, who has been at the Middlebury College Museum since 1985, began exploring Strand’s work and curating the exhibit without much direction.
“I didn’t know where this was going to lead,” he said. “But I found that it all has an explanation behind it. I think any good curatorial object should have a good narrative, but also it should be something that you think is worth sharing and something that is revealing that perhaps hasn’t been told before.”
Strand’s Vermont photos are unknown to most people, but they are certainly an important reflection of Vermont in the 1940s, struggling to recover from the Great Depression and to survive in the midst of World War II.
And yet, as Saunders points out, many of the images hold up.
“If you ask different people why they came to Vermont, what brought them here, a lot of the responses will relate to the environment, the small towns, the preservation of architecture, sense of community and sense of place,” he said. “There’s a natural beauty here, but in addition to that the towns, the villages, the inhabitants I think add a lot. And I think Strand grasped that. And it continues to this day.”