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Book Reviews: The Garden At Orgeval

The Garden At Orgeval. Photographs by Paul Strand.
Published by Aperture, 2012.
The Garden At Orgeval
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

The Garden At Orgeval
Photographs by Paul Strand
Aperture, 2012. Hardbound. 96 pp., 40 duotone illustrations, 8x10-1/2".


Paul Strand's impact is well established. Among other achievements, he is probably more responsible than anyone for photography's shift to straight modernism in the early decades of the last century. The final issue of Camerawork in June 1917 -- perhaps The Photo-Secession's death-blow -- consisted almost entirely of Strand's photos. He was a one-man movement.

That's a lifetime feather in any cap. But everyone slows down eventually. After a career of photographic globetrotting, his legacy secure, Strand settled in 1955 in Orgeval, France and became something of a homebody. He was 65, an expat. He took up gardening and that garden became his photographic subject matter over the final 21 years of his life. He shot his plants in all seasons and from various perspectives, but mostly in the spring and from very close.

The Garden At Orgeval, by Paul Strand. Published by Aperture, 2012.

Aperture's The Garden At Orgeval collects these photos in book form for the first time. The photos are laid out simply and without fuss. One photo per page, one caption per photo, no gimmicks. The photos match the design. There is nothing fancy about them. Although visually perceptive, they show no clever juxtaposition or formal irony. Just clear visions of twigs and leaves. If there is anything confounding about them, it's that they tend to make dirt look clean.

At first glance such a book might seem like a relic. And indeed, browsing The Garden At Orgeval feels a bit like a time warp. It's 1974, and we are wandering slowly through Stand's backyard looking at roots and snails. Cindy Sherman hasn't happened yet. Nor New Topographics. Black and white is still the dominant aesthetic, preferably shot with view camera. Snapshots, color, and appropriated imagery have not been fully accepted into the canon. And photobooks are still a backwater in the art world, generally fitting a conservative mold in design and content. The Garden At Orgeval feels at home here.

The Garden At Orgeval, by Paul Strand. Published by Aperture, 2012.
The Garden At Orgeval, by Paul Strand. Published by Aperture, 2012.

It's now 2012 and photobooks have flowered far beyond that era, now printed in every size, style, and type imaginable. Of course the other side of that coin is that a time warped book might now stand out as something unique. Perhaps more importantly it can be evidence of photography's shifting currents. Reminder: It wasn't always this way.

Orgeval's introduction by Joel Meyerowitz puts a personal perspective on these changing currents. Meyerowitz had known of Strand's work as all photographers do but hadn't truly appreciated it. It wasn't until recently that he'd come to understand it more deeply. Why would someone shoot backyard leaves? Now in his 70s, he finally thought he knew. It's no coincidence that this reconsideration of Strand's work occurred as Meyerowitz himself had reached the age of Strand during Orgeval. Meyerowitz's thoughtful essay recalibrates his own earlier preconceptions, and should cause readers to evaluate how their own aesthetic choices change over time. And once we pick apart our own tastes, it's not such a great step to wonder about societal shifts. Strand's modern approach may have faded, just as The Photo-Secession did before it, but perhaps their revival is inevitable, as signaled by the recent popularity of toy cameras, alt-process, and Instagram.

The Garden At Orgeval, by Paul Strand. Published by Aperture, 2012.

It wasn't always this way. Trends come and go, and that shift is mirrored by Strand's own over time. His change in focus from the expansive outer world to immediate surroundings is a familiar pattern with photographers. One thinks of Josef Sudek, Andre Kertesz, or Ruth Orkin in later life, all shooting from their living quarters. Or Robert Frank or Larry Towell and their later photographs exploring domestic scenes. This conversion is partly due to physical limitations. Older bodies require closer subjects. But with older age also comes a shift in aesthetic priorities, a reborn ability to appreciate the every day and a satisfaction with the internalized.

"The artist's world is limitless," Strand is quoted in the book. "It can be found anywhere, from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep." If The Garden At Orgeval can awaken that realization in readers, it will only add to Strand's legacy.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to think about times when home turf is the most accessible and/or most compelling subject matter. I often use Imogen Cunningham as an example -- she made some of her best work in the backyard while taking care of her young kids. And Strand spent so much time taking pictures of "other" places in the world, finally came to look at his own ground. I look forward to reading Meyerowitz's take on the pictures.

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