Life is not what is invented in ‘stories’; life is another matter.
Guided by filmmaker and influential critic Cesare Zavattini, Paul Strand wandered and photographed in Luzzara, Italy as an engaged outsider in search of a subject. Privy to its stories and the lives of its people through the native Zavattini, but unable to speak Italian, Strand beautifully conveys an intimate distance throughout his 1955 photobook Un Paese. The title of the project, ‘Un Paese,’ dually translates to ‘village’ and ‘country,’ as Luzzara along with the young Tailor’s Apprentice featured here, function as both unique individuals and signifiers for the nation and its population experiencing an extraordinary transition following the Second World War.
Like most of his Luzzara subjects, Strand identifies the young woman by her profession rather than by name. Separated from her work environment, clean, well dressed and seemingly content, she is not portrayed as a victim of exploitative mechanized labor so famously documented by Strand’s first photography teacher, Lewis Hine. Hine’s humanitarian documentary projects, particularly his work for the National Child Labor Committee, exude urgency and explicitly encourage social change. Cotton-Mill Worker, North Carolina (1908) confronts the viewer with the stark realities of child labor and poverty, as its young subject meets the gaze of the camera, not unlike the subject of Tailor’s Apprentice, but with a wholly different plea. Hine’s documents advocate, whereas Strand’s portraits illuminate; bringing us closer to the subject without making claim to their personhood. And while Strand’s pristine, precious prints could never be mistaken for one by Hine, Alfred Stieglitz all too often overshadows Hine’s aesthetic influence, even when regarding Strand’s labor oriented images.
Identified as an apprentice, Strand aligns the young girl with an older, more humane system of labor. The text accompanying the photograph and attributed to her reads; ‘I went to Piemonte this year with my mama, who goes there to work as a rice-weeder, because my papa couldn’t stay behind with me since he was alone. There in Piemonte I looked after the landlord’s geese in the pasture.’ In this short note and throughout Un Paese the textural information selected by Strand conveys the facts of life, rather than its stories. The reader learns about the cost of sharpening tools, the loss of life during the war, the expense of marriage, and summers spent with geese while mothers work in fields.
By the late 1940s, the status of the photograph as objective document had been so thoroughly corrupted by its manipulation during the Second World War that artists, photographers, and filmmakers—particularly those in Italy, like Zavattini—embraced and laid claim to the objective subject. In a letter to Beaumont Newhall, dated April 28, 1953, Strand writes about portraiture of subjects ‘completely unknown to the world at large,’ a kind of neo-realist inspired stance that steps away from the candid, documentary impulse to something more intimate and humane. ‘In short there is no necessity to be acquainted with the subject in order to have from the portrait complete esthetic and human satisfaction...I do not say this kind of portraiture invalidates the candid point of view...It is just different, very different and very challenging. It is one thing to photograph people; it is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness. The old masters did this as though it was the most natural thing to do, and with the greatest simplicity of means.’