In the current choleric atmosphere of financial sector bashing, scapegoating and blame games, Wall Street’s biggest critics can find solace in the above photograph by Paul Strand. In this photo, taken by morning light 1915, the recently built J.P. Morgan Co. building appears sinister and foreboding and dwarfs (perhaps consumes even) the humanity of suited men and women, their long shadows dragging behind them, walked alongside its facade.
Paul Strand studied under Lewis Hine and Alfred Steiglitz. Although he set up in New York as a portriat photgrapher, Strand often visited Stieglitz’s gallery to see the new European painting which it exhibited. In 1914-15, under the infunece of this new form of art, Strand turned from soft-focus pictoralism towards abstraction. It was in this spirit that the above photo was taken, originally named, “Pedestrians raked by morning light in a canyon of commerce”. Strand did not intended to show Wall Street in a bad light, he admitted. However, as the Great Depression happened (criticism was squarely towards Wall Street back then as it is today) and Strand turned more communist, he later spoke of “sinister windows” and “blind shapes” inherent in the above picture.
The photo, now simply titled “Wall Street”, was one of six Paul Strand pictures Stieglitz published in Camera Work. In three of the six pictures, humanity strides out from abstract ideas, and each figure was a study in itself — an irregular item complimented by modular formats that surround it. Another set of eleven Strand photos were published in the magazine’s final issue in 1917, and those pictures, overwhelmingly endorsed by Stieglitz as ‘brutally direct’ made Strand’s reputation.
(Wall Street’s dramatic growth from curbside deals of the 18th century into America’s financial centre was not finalized until the 1900s. Although many pivotal events in the American history — the California Gold Rush, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Civil War — happened far away from the Wall Street, it firmly remained as the nation’s financial centre. It says something about the vast American capital that in 1901, J.P. Morgan was already creating a billion dollar merger of the U.S. Steel and that in 1907, $800 million dollars in securities were unloaded within a few months of panic. Many recognizable practices and institutions were starting to form as well: bank runs and bankruptcy of the Knickerbocker Trust led to the formation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. From 1910-1915, hostile takeover of General Motors was fought primarily in Wall Street, and brought Wall Street into national consciousness. In 1914, the House of Morgan moved in to 23 Wall Street, which was for decades the premier address in American finance and industry. In 1920, a bomb exploded in front of the bank, killing 38 and injuring 300, prompting fueling the Red Scare. The damage from this blast can still been seen on the bank’s facade. In 1929, it was in front 23 Wall Street that many ordinary people learnt that the stock market crash had vaporized their life savings.)