Paul Strand – Tir A’Mhurain: The Outer Hebrides

Paul Strand was an American photographer and film maker whose work I was only vaguely familiar with, as one of a number of modernist photographers who helped establish the form in the United States during the mid 20th Century. That was before I discovered this book and the fascinating story behind it.

Strand was a Marxist connected to, though apparently never a member of, the Communist Party and through his work with a company called Frontier Films fell foul of the McCarthy regime and found himself branded as “un-american” and “subversive”. Never a man to shirk a fight, his response was to insist on having his work printed in Eastern Germany on the pretext that the print process could only be found in the Eastern Bloc.

He arrived in Scotland, with the FBI in close attendance, at the same time as the American military began surveying the island of South Uist in the Hebrides to see if it were suitable to host a long range missile site. That the project should yield one of the definitive documents of the Hebridean way of life and perhaps the definitive work of Scottish photography is extraordinary under the circumstances.

Written in collaboration with Basil Davidson, the book contains a set of monochrome photographs that span portraiture, landscape and documentary in the main, supplemented with textures of stone and sky, thatched roofs and reeds. As an impression of that bleak landscape, I’ve never seen better, indeed never seen anything even approaching this standard.

Although the book is a political project it is not overtly political. It tells a story, the story of the islanders, of their values and relationship with the land and the sea, with work and the weather. In so doing, Strand asserts that the islanders are and continue to be a viable community, not to be ruthlessly ignored and exploited for political gain.

I love this book, both for the writing and the photography. It is an extraordinary achievement for an outsider to capture so accurately the soul of a community, but capture it he did. He tells the story of these islands in the hope that they might be left alone. In fact, the book was immediately banned in the USA and the rocket ranges are still there, under the management of corporations supplying the defence industry.

In somewhat prescient fashion, the book ends with the following quote: “A comic mythology sometimes found elsewhere has liked to paint the Hebrideans as pawky spongers on the governmental purse, preferring charity to fending for themselves…” Sound familiar?

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