Paul Strand and Canada: Travels to the Gaspé Peninsula
A two-page spread published in Vogue magazine in the summer of 1937 reproduced three well-known images by American photographer Paul Strand from his second trip to the Gaspé Peninsula, in 1936. Included were his photograph of Fisherman Hilaire Cotton and two views of Fox River, all represented in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. The essay was presciently titled Gaspe–Half-Way to France, as Strand would leave the United States permanently in 1950, relocating to France, where he would reside until his death in 1976. He would travel extensively throughout Europe and North Africa, but return to the U.S. only intermittently en route to Mexico and Venezuela.
Strand had a restless curiosity about the world beyond the borders of his homeland, visiting Europe for the first time in 1911. Exploring closer to home, Strand travelled north to Canada at least five times between 1915 and 1936, visiting the Canadian Rockies (1915), Quebec's Eastern Townships (1919), Nova Scotia (1920) and the Gaspé Peninsula twice (1929 and 1936).
Of his early trips to Canada we know very little. The visit to the Canadian Rockies was part of a larger commercial undertaking, during which he attempted to interest institutions in having him photograph their campuses and afterwards purchasing the resulting hand-coloured prints. There are no identified, surviving negatives or prints from this voyage. One stunning, Brancusi-like photograph of a rock formation remains the icon of his visit to Nova Scotia in 1920. A print of this image is also in the Gallery’s collection.
Strand’s first trip to Quebec took place in the last weeks of August 1919, when he brought his aunt, Frances Arnstein, and a Mrs. Greengaard as guests to Mossy Ledge, a rustic camp in the Eastern Townships run by Ida May Wilcox. Wilcox was a progressive young woman who had studied in the United States, where she boarded with the reformist family of Isabel and Samuel June Barrows. The camp would certainly have been an agreeable environment for Strand, who remained a political activist throughout his life.
It is highly likely that the recommendation to go to Mossy Ledge came from Strand's friend, the poet, critic, photographer and defender of equal rights Herbert Seligmann, a former guest at the camp. In a letter to fellow American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, Strand described the lodgings at the camp on the Eastern shore of Lake Memphremagog: “ … We are situated on Lake Memphremagog about twenty miles from Newport Vt., In the province of Quebec, the lake extends from Newport some thirty miles to Magog in Canada winding between occasional peaks of 3000 ft, and lovely fir and birch woods of lower hills.” The letter ends with Strand mentioning that they were planning to go home via Quebec and Montreal. Unfortunately, Strand does not appear to have left any photographic evidence of the Mossy Ledge visit.
By contrast, Strand’s trips to the Gaspé Peninsula in 1929 and 1936 were dedicated photographic expeditions, with clearly articulated interests and judiciously selected equipment. During these trips, Strand produced somewhere between 55 and 60 images, and the Gallery has rich holdings of the resulting prints in vintage, later and posthumous print form. The works he made can be dated based on the camera he used. In 1929, he used a 4x5 Graflex and, in 1936, a tri-pod mounted 5x7 that he modified to produce 5x6 1/2 inch negatives.
Strand made his first trip to the Gaspé Peninsula in September 1929 and spent four to six weeks in the region. Much of his photographic activity was centered around Percé, a site that began developing into a tourist attraction when Highway 132 (the old Boulevard Perron) was completed in 1928. Percé harbour, beached boats, preparation of the fishing boats going out to sea or returning to shore feature strongly in this body of work. Above all, it was the relationship between land, sea and sky that seems to have caught his attention, including the low-lying cloud cover captured in Percé Beach, Gaspé, 1929. Photographs of houses and sheds survive, but few photographs that included people. It must be said that Strand, not surprisingly, avoided including the obvious views of the Rock in any of his compositions, given that it was so pervasive in “branding” the Gaspé as a tourist destination.
For MoMA’s 1945 retrospective exhibition Photographs 1915–45 by Paul Strand, curator Nancy Newhall included eight images from the 1929 Gaspé series in her selection. All were gelatin silver prints, a process that Strand maintained was better suited to express the austere weather conditions of the northern climate and landscape. Newhall noted that in 1929 Strand “began composing with all landscape elements, developing an exquisite sense for the moment when the moving forces of clouds, people, boats, are in perfect relation with the static forms of houses and headlands. In this little series, where the whites blaze in the cold light of the North, that sense of spirit of place, which is implicit in the New York and Maine series emerges as the dominant theme of Strand’s work.” Indeed, these intimate, contact-printed images achieve an almost miniaturized sense of the relationship between land, water and the built environmen, which stands in contrast to the epic photographic landscapes of Ansel Adams.
By mid-June 1936, when Strand left for the Gaspé a second time, he could draw upon important new experiences. Visiting New Mexico and Mexico in the early 1930s, he made the film Redes about the exploitation of fishermen on the Gulf Coast of Mexico and photographed people in Mexican towns and villages, using a prism attached to his camera lens that made the subjects unaware that they were being photographed. A handful of vintage prints from this trip, along with his 1967 edition of his Mexican portfolio, is in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. He had also travelled to Moscow, where theatre critic Boris Alpers questioned “the tragic landscapes” and the absence of people in Strand’s photographs. In an article in the Moscow Times, Strand talked about being more involved in photographing people.
In the Gaspé, however, Strand found that his erstwhile secluded, northern retreat had changed since his previous visit. In a letter to his friends Kurt and Isabel Baasch, he laments that “Some of the places I worked in 1929 are already spoiled by tourists – hotels everywhere. There is nothing like photography to make one realize the impermanence of things – how they change or disappear.” Oddly, enough, or perhaps rather predictably, he does not feel compelled to document these changes in his photographs. He simply appears to have avoided Percé.
In the 1945 exhibition, Newhall correctly saw this journey as the occasion when Strand opened up to photographing the Gaspésien people. His portraits of fishermen, young children and a young woman show that he had become more comfortable taking photographs of strangers. A major preoccupation, however, was capturing the character of the vernacular buildings: barns, houses fishing shacks, sheds, vistas of villages and upturned boats. Responding to the colours of the wooden shacks, he conveys a more palpable sense of their materiality by translating his images into rich platinum and Japine platinum prints. The images are composed with exquisite care and communicate the spirit of the place with feeling and intelligence. In spite of his political views, there was a desire to return to the expression of materiality and abstraction. The small box-like sheds are captured with lively juxtapositions to one another. The rooflines and empty sky, as well as the horizontal slats of board offered him endless opportunities to explore the material properties and the formal values in concert. As with the 1929 Gaspé work, there was no marked departure from his fundamental aesthetic.
If Strand went to – or revisited – certain of these fishing villages in the hope of making a statement about the working conditions of the fishermen as he had in Mexico, he would not have found a comparable political climate. Controlled by the Catholic Church, the priests in the Gaspé were fierce opponents of Communism and actively dissuaded their congregants from attending meetings or getting involved with the ideology or movement. This might also have been true in Mexico to a certain degree, but that country had undergone a profound political revolution.
On this occasion, Strand only stayed for two weeks. In a letter dated 27 June 1936 and addressed to the Baaschs, he outlines the route he took, accompanied by his second wife, Virginia: “We went first to Montreal, from there to Quebec, then on to the Gaspé peninsula, the trip I made in 1929”. He also mentions that they would be heading back via the home of the late French sculptor, Gaston Lachaise, and his wife, Isabel, in Georgetown, Maine.
Strand’s appreciation of the scale of the landscape, his expression of community, its labour and its modes of shelter is evident in this tender portrait of a place and its people. It is reminiscent of the holistic vision we encounter in his Time in New England. We can only speculate about Strand’s reasons for choosing the Gaspé, rather than returning to either the Eastern Townships or to Nova Scotia. Strand was in awe of Stieglitz for much of the early decades of his career and was a frequent visitor to Stieglitz's home in Lake George. Perhaps he was motivated to find his own Lake George by heading north to the Gaspé. Stieglitz’s proprietary admonishments, following Strand’s attempts to photograph at his Lake George property, may well have motivated Strand’s journeys north.
For detail of works by Paul Strand in the National Gallery of Canada, please consult the online collection search. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.