Great Stone Project 2022 : The phrase ‘Tir a’Mhurain’ is a romantic and political reference to landscape. It is taken from an emigrant’s song in praise of the island of South Uist and has several Gaelic meanings: ‘the land of bent grass’ or ‘the land of marram grass’. It is also the title of a book of photographs depicting the community of South Uist taken in 1954 by American photographer Paul Strand at a particularly tense time in the Cold War; the photograph at the head of this blog entry was the cover photograph of Tir a’Mhurain, a photograph I had always for some reason remembered.
Strand had left America for Europe following being pursued for his political views by the Joseph McCarthy anti-communist regime which existed from the late 1940s through the 1950s. It was characterised by heightened political repression and persecution of left-wing individuals, and a campaign spreading fear of alleged communist and socialist influence on American institutions and of espionage by Soviet agents. The movement was also known as the ‘Second Red Scare’.
The primary targets for persecution were government employees, prominent figures in the entertainment industry, artistic communities, academics, left-wing politicians, and labor union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive and questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person’s real or supposed leftist associations and beliefs were often exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and the destruction of their careers and livelihoods as a result of the crackdowns on suspected communists, and some were outright imprisoned. The hearings were conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, under McCarthy administration.
A Communist, Strand was in exile in Europe. The timing of his journey to South Uist co-incided within weeks of a secret survey of the island as a possible testing range for America’s new nuclear missile. He felt it imperative to document the unique lifestyle there before the missile installation, and the threat of nuclear war, changed the environment, and maybe the world, entirely.
One of the goals of my journey of the Western Isles was to find the location where Strand made this photograph and to make a similar photograph from the same location in 2022, almost 70 years following Strand’s depiction.
On 19th June 2022 I arrived mid-morning on the island of Eriskay and journeyed over the long causeway to South Uist. Information online had suggested that the location of the photograph was in South Uist, close to the settlement of East Kilbride. I saw on a map there was a campsite in East Kilbride, with a cafe. I decided I would ask there.
The weather remained awful. The clouds hung low and the rain was penetrating. It was dark, visibility atrocious and extremely hard to see anything or to decipher landmarks or the coastline. There is a darkness to Strand’s images of South Uist; the prevailing weather suggested that Strand’s vision may not have been displaced. The coastal road wound slowly north through the murky landscape.
Finding the cafe, the service was welcoming, the room was warm and I ordered a breakfast and coffee. I entered into conversation with a woman who had a full frame Canon camera and a long lens with a red ring; she was a birding photographer, and as frustrated as I by the weather.
The cafe was staffed by 2 young women and following my meal, showing them the image on my laptop, I enquired if either recognised the location of the photograph. They both laughed as they told me it was less than half a mile back along the road I had arrived by.
The rain had recently stopped but the cloud cover remained heavy and low. I retraced my journey and pulled off the road and followed a small track until it ended and looked out over the landscape that Strand had photographed so many years before. This, below, is the image I took. It is mostly different due to a change of perspective; Strand must have used a short telephoto lens on his large format camera to condense the scene and pull together the beach and the distant black house and range of hills and the distant island. My moderate wide angle ( 45mm Fujinon lens ) rendered the landscape more expansively. Other obvious differences include the absence of the iconic ponies on the beach, increased presence of sky in Strand’s image, the tide was further out in Strand’s image and he had boosted the contrast range much more starkly, rendering the sands and sky almost white and the remaining landscape features almost black. There were few mid tones; it was quite reductionist. The middle house, rentered entirely black, assumes the chief focal point, the ponies a secondary focus and finally the landscape tones providing uncomplicated and resonating tonal dissonance.
A simplistic interpretation is maybe that the black house, brazenly centred in the image, is the black hole representing the impending conflagration of a world dangerously on the brink of self-annihilation at the hight of the Cold War.
Otherwise the landscape was remarkably unchanged after 70 years.
In 1954 American photographer Paul Strand (+1976) and his wife Hazel spent three months traversing the rugged island of South Uist, off the west coast of Scotland. Tir a’Mhurain reflects the impressions they gathered during their stay. Juxtaposing people and landscape, Strand’s photographs depict the perfect complicity he saw between nature and habitation in this wild terrain.
Whether they are of rocks and sea or a grinning shepherd boy, scudding clouds hanging over seaside houses or the wrinkled face of an old lady, Strand’s images capture the essence and complexity of a singular place. This new edition of Tir a’Mhurain, which includes rare images never before published, is a true masterpiece of photography.
Paul Strand was a photographer and filmmaker who, along with fellow modernist photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, helped establish photography as an art form in the 20th century. His diverse body of work, spanning six decades, covers numerous genres and subjects throughout the Americas, Europe, and Africa.
From an introduction to Tir a’Mhurian
Tir a’Mhurain is an account of Gaelic culture and a defence of a way of life that Strand valued and respected. Along with studies of fishermen, families, schoolchildren and farmers, images of houses and possessions reveal a compelling beauty in the everyday. The elements that characterise the islands, both past and present, are subtly combined in many of the portraits.
A personal recollection by John MacLellan, depicted below in the middle of two of his 10 siblings Milly and Jean, photographed in their Hebrides home by Paul Strand in 1954, from an article published in the Guardian 20th May 2016.
Paul Strand was a New Yorker who photographed his own city, before travelling widely, to Mexico, France, Italy, Ghana. He photographed the UK once, during a visit to the Hebrides in 1954. He was worried that a plan to have a missile base on the island would change the lives of the people on South Uist, which included me and my family, and he wanted to record us before it was too late.
This is me, in the middle, aged eight, with my sisters Millie and Jean. We are standing on the sofa to give us a bit more height. I remember Strand outside, setting up his large camera on a tripod under a cloak. Apparently, he was meticulous like this, taking a long time to set up and take his pictures, like a studio photographer, even though he was in the open air.
This had been our grandparents’ house, and when he inherited it, my father built two new wings. We also had a croft and 10 acres of land, and there was a loch at the back of the house. For me and my siblings – I had five brothers and five sisters – there were always jobs to do: we had hens, ducks and two cows. We fed them, took them in at night, collected eggs, cleaned the birds’ houses and milked the cows. We had to fetch peat for the fires from some distance.
I planted a vegetable garden; I grew lettuce, carrots, beetroot and cabbage. In summer, there were other crops to tend, and peat-cutting, drying and stacking to do. Shopping involved walking to Lochboisdale; we would get deposit money back on empty lemonade bottles and jam jars, which supplemented any pocket money we had. Travelling shops visited on certain days.
As my elder brothers and sisters left home, more work fell to the younger ones – I was the second youngest. It was like a business with inbuilt downsizing of the workforce; we were certainly multitasking before the term came into common usage. There weren’t many other children living nearby to play with, and the pace of life was pretty slow.
Strand wasn’t the first person to photograph us. Werner Kissling, a German photographer who documented similar communities all over the world, had taken our picture many times with his Leica. Unlike Strand, he always photographed us outside. He returned often and became a family friend.
Strand published a book of his time in South Uist in 1962, called Tir A’ Mhurain, which in Gaelic means Land Of Marram Grass, after the grass that spreads along the sandy western shore. I first saw this photograph when I bought the book 20 years later, in 1981.
I left South Uist when I was 15 and had finished school – young people really had to move to the mainland to study or work. I feel no sense of loss; in fact, everything has worked out well, probably due, in no small measure, to my upbringing. I go back occasionally from Edinburgh, where I now live, and am always treated as if I’ve never been away.
All Roads Lead to Scotland | Paul Strand’s 1950s Hebridean photographs
Anne Lyden is responsible for the photography collection at the National Galleries of Scotland. The collection is presently around 40,000 objects. In this blog, Anne reflects on the incredible group of images taken on South Uist by American photographer, Paul Strand.
When I was a curator based in California, I would often joke that ‘all roads lead to Scotland.’ While my American colleagues would politely smile at my patriotic pride and bombast, there were certainly enough moments within the history of photography to demonstrate my claim.
I had the opportunity to muse on this once more in 2015 when the National Galleries of Scotland made a major acquisition of nine photographs by the American photographer, Paul Strand (1890-1976). The vintage silver gelatine prints date from 1954 and are of the landscape and people of South Uist, an island of the Outer Hebrides. Strand is among the greatest photographers within the history of photography, and his work is represented in collections all over the world, so having a selection of these Scottish works enter our collection was an exciting opportunity.
While the Gaelic music was a major influence on the photographer’s desire to document the islands, the photographs also show the influence of another Scottish connection—the early portraits by Hill & Adamson. Strand admired the work of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, photographic partners in Edinburgh between 1843 and 1847 who produced thousands of prints, many of which are now part of the permanent collection based at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
In describing Hill & Adamson’s work, Strand spoke of their photographs as recording an ‘inner strength’, something that he aspired to achieve in his own work. His Hebridean portraits, made over a hundred years later certainly recall the heroic nature of the Newhaven portraits by Hill & Adamson. In the 1840s Newhaven was a small fishing village on the outskirts of Edinburgh, populated by a tightknit community of men, women and children.
Their traditional way of life would soon be impacted by the growth of the capital city and the wider industrialisation of the nineteenth century. Similarly, in the 1950s the crofters of South Uist were witnessing change to their own remote community, most notably with the siting of a missile rocket range on the island. While Strand opposed this facility and indeed his portraits may be seen as a protest against the Cold War, the works should not be read as propaganda. They are part of a life-long quest of his to capture something of humanity’s essential character focusing on communities whose precarious existence was under threat from the modernising world. His photographic journeys took him all over the world—America, Mexico, France, Italy, Egypt, Romania, Hungary, Spain—but in considering the Tìr a’ Mhurain work, literally and figuratively, all roads led to Scotland.
Other photographs by Paul Strand with a brief description of content :
A Description of Paul Strand
Photographer, artisan, observer. Paul Strand is a complete photographer. He was a master of all the steps that lead up to a photograph, from the first glance to the darkroom. He is a major and undeniable influence on later generations. Strand makes us pay attention to what is important instead of what is incidental: he forces us to return to the essence of things.
“A symbol of every old and new desire”. Photography is “the symbol of a great impersonal struggle”, Paul Strand once said.Strand’s work tells the story of modern photography and modern human beings.
From his first steps in life, every gesture was oriented towards photography. He was born in New York, the child of Czechoslovakian immigrants. While a student of Lewis Hine at the Ethical Culture School, a visit to Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 made him think of photography as something more than a hobby. From that moment, he devoted himself to observing the world and capturing it through his camera. From Hine he took the idea of photography as a tool for denouncing injustice, as a political element, and throughout his career Strand was a politically committed artist.
Recognition never eluded him. He showed his work at 291 and in The Modern Gallery. He appeared in the last two issues of Camera Work, explored the principles of modern aesthetics, and delved deeply into the New Objectivity style with his urban landscapes and photographs of machines.Later he devoted himself wholeheartedly to cinema, giving it up only because of an inability to finance these projects after the war. At this time he decided to channel his energies into the preparation of meticulously designed photography books, seeking to combine text and image as he did with cinema. Time in New England, with Nancy Newhall, was the first of these publications. Later, after moving to Europe in 1950, this was followed by La France de profil with Claude Roy (1952), Un Paese (A Village) with Cesare Zavattini (1955), Tir a’Mhurain with Basil Davidson (1962), Living Egypt (1969) and Ghana: An African Portrait (1976).
As a young man, Strand decided to study “how you build a picture, what a picture consists of, how spaces are filled, how the whole must have a kind of unity”. With the passing years, investigations, women (Rebecca Salsbury, Virginia Stevens and Hazel Kingsbury), countries observed and acknowledgments, this maxim remained : environmental influences that he assumed and transformed into an impeccable, elegant and raw way of seeing.
The film he made with Charler Sheeler entitled Manhattan (1921), introduced as New York the Magnificent, was one of the great achievements of the day: 7 minutes that featured the streets of New York, the city depicted so many times as a paradigm of our world. In the thirties he pursued a career as a freelancer in this field. Due to his travels, he came into contact with the documentary cinema sponsored by the Mexican government. This allowed him to film Redes/The Wave, which shed light on the economic plight of a fishing village near Ver Cruz. This was followed by The Plow That Broke The Plains with Pare Lorentz and produced by Frontier Films, and his most ambitious work Native Land, which debuted in 1941.
In 1956 Edward Steichen commissioned an exhibition that would prove to be essential today in the history of photography: within the series Diogenes with a Camera appeared Diogenes with a Camera III, where Strand’s work was shown alongside that of Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Walker Evans and August Sander. In 1965 Nancy Newhall introduced him to Michael Hoffman, editor of Aperture, a publication with which Strand would collaborate for the rest of his life and that would oversee his legacy and archives, in addition to editing the two volumes of the catalog of the major retrospective that took place at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1971. Paul Strand: A retrospective monograph.
To his sharp eye, Strand added great mastery of his craft, and his work stands out for it. Working in the darkroom, he opted in particular for papers that contained silver particles, a characteristic that made the whites and blacks more intense and increased contrasts. Richard Benson, who was lucky enough to spend time with Strand the master in his darkroom at the end of his life, wrote this about him:”I learned to simplify in the darkness. ‘Do everything you can with light, son, and never forget that we’re making a photograph not a copy.’ This was a master class on the art of photography.”
“I think of myself as an explorer who has spent his life on a long voyage of discoveries.”The discoveries in each one of his works urge us to explore, to think about the world. When he died in 1976 in Orgeval, two portfolios were published: On My Doorstep and The Garden.He had spent 75 years with a camera strapped around his neck.
Paul Strand’s Hebrides: subtle, sensitive with a dash of Marxist steel 20.09.2012
There are more than a few odd things about Paul Strand’s book of Hebridean photographs Tir a’Mhurain which was first published 50 years ago this month.
Consider, for instance, this remarkable coincidence: a notable Marxist photographer, an exile from McCathyite America with the FBI on his trail, arrived in South Uist within weeks of a secret survey of the island as a possible testing range for America’s new nuclear missile.
What about Strand’s blind insistence, at the height of the cold war, that his book only be printed in Leipzig, East Germany? He cited technical rather than political reasons, favouring a special print process that was only available on the other side of the iron curtain.
Another oddity: when looking for an author to write the accompanying text to Tir a’Mhurain (Gaelic for Land of the Bendy Grass), he rejected many eminent Scottish writers (Hamish Henderson, Neil M. Gunn and Sir Compton Mackenzie) in favour of an English journalist. Basil Davidson (who died in 2010) ended up writing a pitch perfect commentary but until this commission he had never even been to the Hebrides.
Tir a’Mhurain is as strange a book as all of this might suggest.
Strange too is that this is a work of high Modernism with an affinity for folk culture. It embodies a steely Marxist aesthetic but remains subtle and sensitive to the individual islander. And though now neglected, it is surely one of the most important moments in the portraiture of Scotland.
Strand certainly thought so. Not given to self doubt, he ranked himself third in the pantheon of world photographers, after Scotland’s David Octavius Hill and the Frenchman Eugène Atget.
This sort of egotism is not particularly attractive but nor is it entirely wide of the mark; within the history of Scotland’s photography, only Hill has a prior claim to significance.
Yet even now Paul Strand does not get the recognition he deserves, at least not on this side of the Atlantic. Imagine if Strand’s colleague Ansel Adams had shot a Scottish Highland portfolio? The emporiums of Scottishness on the Royal Mile would be brimming over with the supersized prints and calendars.
Strand’s work is rather less accessible. It was always expensive for one thing – ostensibly because of his belief in the integrity of the photographic print as an original artwork. He berated Adams for allowing his work to be reproduced in poster form though it was precisely this strategy that sealed Adams’ reputation as America’s pre-eminent landscape photographer.
Strand’s landscapes make no bid for Adams’ sublime grandeur. They have a depth that is less yielding to a casual glance; he makes us work to think about the relations between and within images – the ties of labour that bind Hebrideans to the landscapes of their making.
Tir a’Mhurain was in many ways a political project in the guise of an ethnographic one. He pictured locally celebrated tradition bearers – the bards and storytellers – and he did so straight; no tricks.
As Davidson observed:
We are looking at subjects not objects; but these same subjects are also looking back at us, again at us as subjects, with the same intense equality of interest.
Outraged by what he saw as an aggressive Nato militarism, Strand originally conceived of Tir a’Mhurain as, in part, a protest against the development of the rocket range in South Uist.
But by the time the book was finished, the rocket range was already a done deal and the Corporal missile – the world’s first nuclear missile – was soaring high over the Atlantic towards St Kilda.
With bleak timing, the book was published just weeks before the Cuban missile crisis when the world came closest to the scenario of “mutually assured destruction”. It was in these dark days of the cold war that Strand held out his vision of Hebridean community as an inspiration. But his own native land was having none of it.
The United States banned the book unless imported copies bore an obvious stamp ‘Printed in Germany, USSR occupied’ – a stipulation to which they knew Strand would never consent.
As a committed communist, Strand was often at odds with the political climate. That history didn’t exactly go Strand’s way is evident by the fact that, long after the end of the cold war, the South Uist rocket range is still open for business – though as a privatized industry now run by defence corporations.
But still the photos remain – evocative portraits of Scottish lives and landscapes under the shadow of the bomb.
* Permission to use these two Strand portraits has been given by Aperture, a not-for-profit foundation which “connects the photo community and its audiences with the most inspiring work, the sharpest ideas, and with each other — in print, in person, and online.”
Paul Strand’s intimate and rich Hebridean images bought for Scottish gallery
Rare prints made by the American photographer Paul Strand from his photographic essay in the Hebrides in the 1950s have been acquired by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, each ‘a triumph of modest composition’.
One photograph is not the same as another. That’s the primary revelation from news that the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has bought nine images from the Hebridean work of renowned American photographer Paul Strand.
Strand’s classic book Tir a’Mhurain (Land of Bent Grass), written with essayist Basil Davidson, is the most acclaimed photographic book of twentieth century Scotland. Taken in 1954, the images of Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay, are internationally known but have been exhibited only once north of the border.
The purchase marks the first time that this work has been represented in a permanent public collection in Scotland, but the real significance is less obvious.
Many of the images are familiar. The paradox of high art photography, however, is that mechanical reproduction does not make two photographs the same. For a technology designed to make copies, the photographs purchased by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery are as original as they come.
Most Strands on the open market are limited-edition authorized prints, posthumously made by a master printer from the original negative. Even then, you’ll need deep pockets. And the gradations in exposure, texture and tone that can be obtained from one negative are practically infinite.
The gelatin silver prints now on show in Edinburgh are, unusually, made by Strand himself – so they tell us a lot about how he wanted each image to look. Dark, yet richly textured.
The quality of the portraits, landscapes and close-ups is exquisite. Each subject is a triumph of modest composition; such detail and intimacy.
Behold the storyteller and singer Kate MacDonald, Bean Eairdsidh Raghnaill (or “Mrs Archie MacDonald” as she is captioned here); she’s in her Sunday best, her hairnet like a neat halo.
There are no epic landscapes like those of Strand’s friend Ansel Adams. This isn’t about grandeur – which is why they are surprisingly small: they are ‘contact prints’, each photograph exactly the size as the negative from which a tiny number were made.
These Hebridean images may not be so abstract as Strand’s earliest work, but they share the same modernist fixation. ‘Not just true to life’ as one critic noted, ‘but truer than life’.
But how to achieve this? It was all about the dark. Unlike many of his peers, Strand hated gloss paper. But nor could a fully matte paper quite convey the inky depth he needed. So he settled for a semi-matte and carefully layered varnishes or waxes until it conveyed the vocabulary of blackness. Not a quick process.
That level of fussiness never quite works in the mass production of books. Yet he obsessed so much about the reproductions in Tir a’Mhurain that it was sent behind the Iron Curtain to be printed (he was as doctrinaire about Marxism as about photography).
If you can ever find a copy of the original Tir a’Mhurain, it presents a more rounded project. The book form also allowed Strand to draw correspondences between images – like Peggy MacDonald, South Uist and Croft, Loch Carnan – a correlation that Anne Lydon, the International Photography Curator, has carefully preserved in the exhibition.
But these photographs are simply not like anything else. Just don’t think that by seeing them online you have truly apprehended the Hebridean darkness.