Paul Strand and Tir a' Mhurain: An introduction

I have been inspired by Paul Strand's photography for 40 years. 

Ironically, I can date my discovery of his work to 1976, the very year of his death. That is the year handwritten on the frontispiece of my copy of the first edition of his seminal work "Tir a' Mhurain" (Land of Bent Grass, in Gaelic) which also records its purchase for 30p from a second-hand book sale at my home town library in Wolverhampton in the English West Midlands.

 My battered copy...

My battered copy...

Maybe the librarians thought the value of his work had fallen with his death: I begged to differ then, investing a little of my student holiday job income, and I have continued to reap benefit through to today. It has undoubtedly been the best 30 pence I have ever spent.

I'm delighted to see that a third edition of the book is to be published in autumn 2016, and I encourage everyone to buy this:

Others have expressed the impact of Strand's photographic career better than I ever could (see the Resources post on this blog) but for me this book represents the first flowering of insightful travel photography, of the illustration of a synthesis of place, detail and humanity through the eye of a modernist photographer. 

Especially humanity: just look in to the eyes of his proud subjects, and inevitably your mind turns to reflect on their lives.

 Hands (page 45)

Hands (page 45)

Strand left the US during the McCarthy era because he feared his communist and humanist sympathies would fall foul of the authorities, and he subsequently produced a series of books and images describing the human condition in remote and characterful locations: the Outer Hebrides, Ghana, Mexico, rural Italy, the south-western USA, Romania, Canada... 

So, for 40 years I have wanted to visit the islands of Benbecula and South Uist, the remote British outpost in the north west where he shot the images that illustrate Tir a' Mhurain, to see what is left of his vision, to re-create his images where I could, and to assess what has changed and what remains.

I semi-retired in Spring 2014 which gave me the time, and I booked flights and accommodation in North and South Uist for a week in May 2016 (see my Resources post on this blog for my advice on where to stay and how to travel). 

I was delighted to see that the Victoria and Albert Museum were to stage a major retrospective of his still photography and film work in Spring 2016. Visiting this was a wonderful experience and I hope it will stimulate interest in Strand and value in my own project:


On arrival at Benbecula airport my intention was first to locate the possibly-identifiable landscape images in the book (of the 106 images in the book, I reckoned 16 contained enough titular and visual cues to be worth the hunt, although a couple of those are so vague that finding the locations will be a matter of considerable luck) and to recreate them where possible. I found 14.

I also wished to document their locations for others who might be interested, and to offer my own interpretations of the places today - what image might a modern photographer produce in the location? These will be posted as 'Finding Strand' blog posts, identified by the title of the corresponding image in my first edition copy of Tir a' Mhurain.

Another proportion of Strand's images are modernist detail illustrations, for which exact locations are unidentifiable and of secondary importance. I wanted to produce my own versions of these, or of images that catch their spirit and inspiration, and the results will appear here as 'After Strand' blog posts.

 Skull (page 75)

Skull (page 75)

"Humanity" would have to wait. Time getting to know and gaining the confidence of potential subjects would be needed to achieve the style required, and I decided to leave this until a later visit.

I was more successful on this first attempt than I had hoped: I found the exact or very close locations of 11 images, and I found 3 more during my next visit in May 2017 as well as more 'details'.

There are 2 or 3 more landscape images in the book that might be locatable, but because only the general locations are given in the book and no distinctive landmarks appear in shot, a great deal of luck would be needed, so now (June 2017) these parts of my project are complete.

Orosay sunset

Finding Paul Strand's Tir a' Mhurain: Resources