For six months I worked at still photographs of Mexico… Among other things I made a series of photographs in the churches, of the Christs and Madonnas, carved out of wood by the Indians…These figures [are] so alive with the intensity of the faith of those who made them. That is what interested me, the faith... (Paul Strand, in a letter to the photographer, Irving Browning, late September 1934).
Paul Strand’s Virgin, San Felipe, Oaxaca was photographed during the artist's important sojourn in Mexico, which began in November of 1932 and lasted for two years. Following the dissolution of the two main relationships in his life -- with his wife, Rebecca Salsbury, and with his friend and mentor, Alfred Stieglitz -- Mexico provided Strand with a revitalizing escape not only from these recent personal losses, but also from an American culture that he was finding increasingly restrictive.
Upon arriving in Mexico, Strand was immediately compelled to start taking pictures. This was uncommon behavior for the artist, who typically took his time first to become familiar with a new country before starting to photograph. The culture of post-revolutionary Mexico was dynamic and progressive, thanks largely to the socially engaged murals and paintings by José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who played a key role in the new national identity of Mexico. Strand was enthusiastic about these painters, and would eventually become friendly with Siquieros, whose work shares with Strand’s an emotional intensity through stark, austere composition (see fig. 1). In the 1967 reissue of Strand’s portfolio, Photographs of Mexico (then re-titled, The Mexican Portfolio), Siqueiros dramatically praised Strand’s contribution to ‘our Mexican pictorial movement with its plastic concepts and new realism in open rebellion against formalism’ and the application of this pictorial vocabulary to ‘Man, the physical world in which he moves, struggles and dies’.
In post-revolutionary Mexico, practical, decorative and ritual objects were celebrated as evidence of the unique and inherent creativity of Mexican people and were regarded as integrated with the fine arts. In the catalog for Strand’s 1945 exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Nancy Newhall wrote of Strand’s series, ‘In the dark churches, Strand found the bultos, strange images of Christ and the Virgin… which seem to symbolize, like the brief glimpses of the land and the architecture in this series, the emotional preoccupations of the people. The Mexicans themselves acknowledge the depth of Strand’s realization’ (as quoted by Katherine Ware, ‘Photographs in Mexico’, Paul Strand in Mexico, p. 270).
Through sensitive composition and tight cropping, Strand's eerily beautiful representations of religious figurative sculptures, such as that of this present image, express a timeless Mexico, which in reality was in the midst of radical transition. The present vintage print of this dignified and evocative image, which appeared as the third plate in the Photographs of Mexico (1940), was luxuriously printed in platinum metals and likely toned with gold in order to intensify the blacks.
Other platinum prints of this image in institutional collections reside at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The George Eastman House, Rochester.