40 Inspirational Paul Strand Quotes: The Voyage of Discovery

Looking for the best Paul Strand quotes? Then you’ve come to the right place. Paul Strand was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century whose images helped define the way fine art and documentary photography is practised today.

Below we’ve put together a list of 40 quotes from the master photographer to inspire, motivate and help take your photography to the next level.

Paul Strand Quotes

Objectivity is of the very essence of photography, its contribution and at the same time its limitation.

You see, the extraordinary thing about photography is that it’s a truly popular medium… But this has nothing to do with the art of photography even though the same materials and the same mechanical devices are used, Thoreau said years ago “You can’t say more than you see.” No matter what lens you use, no matter what the speed of the film is, no matter how you develop it, no matter how you print it, you cannot say more than you see. That’s what that means, and that’s the truth.

I’ve always felt you can do anything you want in photography, if you can get away with it.

I think of myself as an explorer who has spent his life on a long voyage of discovery.

If the photographer is not a discoverer, then he is not an artist.

Photography is only a new road from a different direction, but moving toward the common goal, which is life.

I’ve always felt you can do anything you want in photography, if you can get away with it.

The important thing is, you have to have something important to say about the world.

Paul Strand Quotes 1

Documentary Photography Quotes

The documentary photographer aims his camera at the real world to record truthfulness. At the same time, he must strive for form, to devise effective ways of organizing and using the material. For content and form are interrelated. The problems presented by content and form must be so developed that the result is fundamentally true to the realities of life as we know it. The chief problem is to find a form that adequately represents the reality.

It has always been my belief that the true artist, like the true scientist, is a researcher using materials and techniques to dig into the truth and meaning of the world in which he himself lives; and what he creates, or better perhaps, brings back, are the objective results of his explorations. The measure of his talent – of his genius, if you will – is the richness he finds in such a life’s voyage of discovery and the effectiveness with which he is able to embody it through his chosen medium.

If Ansel Adams gets a thousand dollars a print, I want ten thousand.

Honesty no less than intensity of vision is the prerequisite of a living expression. This means a real respect for the thing in front of the photographer. This is accomplished without tricks of process or manipulation through the use of straight photographic methods.

The artist is one who makes a concentrated statement about the world in which he lives and that statement tends to become impersonal – it tends to become universal and enduring because it comes out of something very particular.

Luzzara Family, Strand
The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis), 1953, Paul Strand © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation.

Photographing People

It is one thing to photograph people. It is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness.

I like to photograph people who have strength and dignity in their faces; whatever life has done to them, it hasn’t destroyed them. I gravitate towards people like that.

With the eye of the machine, Stieglitz… has shown that the portrait of an individual is really the sum of a hundred or more photographs. He has looked with three eyes and has been able to hold, by purely photographic means, space-filling, tonality and tactility, line and form, that moment when the forces at work in a human being become most intensely physical and objective. In thus revealing the spirit of the individual he has documented the world of that individual, which is today.

Rebecca, 1922
Rebecca, 1922 © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation.

Strand on Subject Matter

Subject matter is extremely important to the artist, because until he talks about something that really means something to him, the audience cannot see anything important or interesting.

I’ve always wanted to be aware of what’s going on around me, and I’ve wanted to use photography as an instrument of research into and reporting on the life of my own time.

On the whole, I am attracted to those artists who are interested in a large panorama, and not to those who are concerned with their personal likes and dislikes. I am attracted to those who are more interested in everything that exists outside of themselves. That is the final source of all the best in art and it’s a source which has hardly been tapped.

Look at the things around you, the immediate world around you. If you are alive, it will mean something to you, and if you care enough about photography, and if you know how to use it, you will want to photograph that meaningness. If you let other people’s vision get between the world and your own, you will achieve that extremely common and worthless thing, a pictorial photograph.

The material of the artist lies not within himself nor in the fabrications of his imagination, but in the world around him. The element which gives life to the great Picassos and Cezannes, to the paintings of Van Gogh, is the relationship of the artist to context, to the truth of the real world. It is the way he sees this world and translates it into art that determines whether the work of art becomes a new and active force within reality, to widen and transform man’s experience. The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep.

Paul Strand Quotes 2

Photography Technique

The camera machine cannot evade the objects which are in front of it. When the photographer selects this movement, the light, the objects, he must be true to them. If he includes in his space a strip of grass, it must be felt as the living differentiated thing it is and so recorded. It must take its proper but no less important place as a shape and a texture in relationship to the mountain tree or what not, which are included.

We do not photograph some large conception of humanity, but rather go very deeply into a single person, and penetrate very deeply and derive a larger meaning. One person who has been studied very deeply and penetratingly can become all persons. Therefore, it seems to me, that art is very specific and not at all general.

The decision as to when to photograph, the actual click of the shutter, is partly controlled from the outside, by the flow of life, but it also comes from the mind and the heart of the artist. The photograph is his vision of the world and expresses, however subtly, his values and convictions.

Cartier-Bresson has said that photography seizes a ‘decisive moment’, that’s true except that it shouldn’t be taken too narrowly…does my picture of a cobweb in the rain represent a decisive moment? The exposure time was probably three or four minutes. That’s a pretty long moment. I would say the decisive moment in that case was the moment in which I saw this thing and decided I wanted to photograph it.

All good art is abstract in its structure.

The camera machine cannot evade the objects which are in front of it. No more can the photographer. He can choose these objects, arrange and exclude, before exposure, but not afterwards… Your photography is a record of your living, for any one who really sees.

And if you can find out something about the laws of your own growth and vision as well as those of photography you may be able to relate the two, create an object that has a life of its own, which transcends craftsmanship. That is a long road, and because it must be your own road nobody can teach it to you or find it for you. There are no shortcuts, no rules.

The photographer’s problem, therefore, is to see clearly the limitations and at the same time the potential qualities of his medium, for it is precisely here that honesty, no less than intensity of vision, is the prerequisite of a living expression. This means a real respect for the thing in front of him, expressed in terms of chiaroscuro through a range of almost infinite tonal values which lie beyond the skill of human hand.

The thing I see is outside myself – always. I’m not trying to describe an inner state of being.

Cobweb, Paul Strand
Cobweb in Rain, 1927 © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation.

Paul Strand Quotes for Better Photography

I don’t care how you photograph – use the kitchen mop if you must, but if the product is not true to the laws of photography… you have produced something that is dead.

When you put a photograph on the wall it either works as a totality or it doesn’t and all the excuses, rationale, and captions underneath will not make it any better.

The unintelligence of present-day photographers, that is of so-called pictorial photographers, lies in the fact that they have not discovered the basic qualities of their medium.

Whether a watercolor is inferior to an oil [painting], or whether a drawing, an etching, or a photograph is not as important as either, is inconsequent. To have to despise something in order to respect something else is a sign of impotence.

I read the other day that Minor White said it takes twenty years to become a photographer. I think that is a bit of an exaggeration. I would say, judging from myself, that it takes at least eight or nine years. But it does not take any longer than it takes to learn to play the piano or the violin. If it takes twenty years, you might as well forget about it!

You may see and be affected by other people’s ways, you may even use them to find your own, but you will have eventually to free yourself of them. That is what Nietzche meant when he said, ‘I have just read Schopenhauer, now I have to get rid of him.’ He knew how insidious other people’s ways could be, particularly those which have the forcefulness of profound experience, if you let them get between you and your own personal vision.

Did I express my personality? I think that’s quite unimportant because it’s not people’s selves but what they have to say about life that’s important.

I go and get the camera and do it. Photography is a medium in which if you don’t do it then, very often you don’t do it at all, because it doesn’t happen twice. A rock will probably always be more or less there juts the way you saw it yesterday. But other things change, they’re not always there the day after or the week after. Either you do it or you don’t. Certainly with things as changeable as shy and landscape with moving clouds and so on, if they look wonderful to you on a certain day and if you don’t do it then, you may never see them again for the rest of your life. So as a photographer you become very conscious – at least I do – that everything is in movement.

Hebrides, Scotland
Outer Hebrides, Scotland, 1954 © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation.

What’s your Favorite Paul Strand Quote?

Have a favorite Paul Strand quote from the list? Let us know in the comment section below.

Don’t forget to bookmark this page, or print it out, and refer to it next time you need some inspiration. If you’ve found the article helpful, then we would be grateful if you could share it with other photographers.

To see more of Paul Strand’s photography, check out his image archive on the V&A Museum website.

Looking for more words of wisdom from master photographers? Check out the quotes section of Photogpedia for more great photography quotes.

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Founder of Photogpedia.com. Photography enthusiast, occasional filmmaker, part-time writer and full-time dreamer. Rediscovered photography in 2012 and have been trying to level up my photography skills since (I'm getting there) #chasingthecreative

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