Paul Strand, a friend of Alfred Stieglitz and his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, visited O’Keeffe while she was away in New Mexico. Stieglitz had written O’Keeffe on June 27, 1931 from Lake George, NY, “…Strand will add to his trophies of photography. What a chance he has. He ought to do some great work this year after the criticism I gave him.” Georgia then wrote Alfred on July 10, “Strand didn’t like the ‘paint quality’ in one of my best paintings—Made me want to knock his hat off or do something to him to muss him up—The painting certainly has no resemblance to a photograph.” Who was this friend admired by Stieglitz, considered “the founding father of American modernism,” and brazen enough to criticize O’Keeffe’s work?
Strand was a member of what Libby Bischof and Susan Danly refer to as the “Stieglitz circle” in their Maine Moderns: Art in Seguinland, 1900-1940, which accompanies a show of the same name on view this summer at the Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Seguinland, a resort area on the quiet coast of Maine, attracted this small circle of modernist artists (which was never actually joined by Stieglitz but was always encouraged by him) in the early twentieth century. These painters, sculptors, and—most “modernly”—photographers used the forests, beaches, and villages to inform and inspire their work. Strand was actually one of the last to join the summer vacationers, who included Clarence H. White, Gertrude Käsebier, Max Weber, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Marguerite Zorach, Gaston Lachaise, and William Zorach. Stieglitz promoted the work of the artists, especially hoping to place photography firmly on the level of other art forms.
Bischof and Danly showcase a beautiful selection of the Seguinland’s modernist work, which used techniques already popular in European and American cities in an entirely new setting. A gelatin silver print by Strand, Cobweb in the Rain, belongs to his series of close-ups of natural forms including driftwood and plants on the beaches he visited during the summer. White beads of water drape across the bursts of leaves in this photograph. Seguinland proved welcoming to all the artists’ cameras, including that of F. Holland Day. His Youth in a Rocky Landscape shows a boy, arms outstretched, on a cliff, calling back the lost Arcadia. Maine Moderns brings together these pieces from a group who did not consider themselves a school of artists but friends enjoying the life of rural New England. As Strand wrote Stieglitz, “The weeks in Maine were . . . perfect days of work and play. I did much work and had much joy in doing it.”