Time in New England

Time in New England (Strand and Newhall, 1980) is a book by Paul Strand and Nancy Newhall that came out of an exhibition of Strand’s work in MoMA in New York in1945. The book consists of pictures taken by Strand set against the history of New England in a series of pieces of writing chosen by Newhall. It tells the story of New England from 1630 to 1945. The writing contains diary excerpts, fiction, poetry and history. It demonstrates the changes in attitudes towards people, nature and race over the years. Some of the writing is horrific, at least to the modern ear, some is gentle, and some is funny. I particularly liked the information about ‘bundling’ (the process of getting to know someone during courtship by sleeping (mostly) clothes in bed with your incipient partner (p.87), the Diary of the Learned Blacksmith – who reads Arabic, German and Garlic in between shoeing horses (p.121), the poem By the Morning Boat by Sarah Orne Jewitt (p.218) and the almost final piece by W.E.Burghardt du Bois which I will quote as it is particularly pertinent today.

I dream of a world of infinite and invaluable variety; in human variety in height and weight, colour and skin, hair and nose and lip. And far above and beyond this in the realm of true freedom: in thought and dream, fantasy and imagination: in gift, aptitude and genius – all possible manner of difference, topped with freedom of soul to do and be, and freedom of thought to give to a world and build with it, all wealth of inborn individuality. Each effort to stop this freedom is a blow at democracy – that real democracy which is reservoir and opportunity and fight against which is murdering civilisation. There can be no perfect democracy curtailed by colour, race or poverty. But with all, we accomplish all, even Peace (p.248).

The images are all black and white, beautifully composed straight photography. They are interposed between the passages of writing, some link in clearly, such as the nautical images (masts, the sea) with the sea stories (passages from Moby Dick and a disastrous story of a shipwreck). Others have less obvious links. They show the countryside, close-ups of tree bark, houses, churches, and the occasional person. There are leaves and gravestones, local woodcarving (a duck), doors and windows. My favourite (today) is a very calming image of the sky over a small sliver of sea (p. 231).

Stieglitz’s famous description of Strand’s photography “brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any ‘ism’” still stands today. His images look like what they are. A window is a window, the glass looks like glass, the wood like wood. The images are clear and serene. Calm and quiet. They bare repeated looking, or rather demand it, even so many years after his death and all the changes in style that have come since.

The book is an exemplary example of the use of both words and text to tell a story. The images are not directly illustrative. The words are not simply descriptive. The two together are synergistic – greater than the sum of the parts.

Reference:

Strand, P. and Newhall, N. W. (1980) Time in New England. Millerton, N.Y.: [New York]: Aperture; distributed by Harper & Row.

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