The silence of money

Amalia Iglesias Serna

Wall Street, New York, 1915

Paul Strand
Wall Street, New York, 1915
Fundación MAPFRE Collections
©
Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

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“The most impressive aspect because it is cold and cruel is Wall Street… and the crowd. No one realizes exactly what a New York crowd is like” Federico García Lorca wrote in A Poet in New York, in December 1929. Lorca refers to the “cruel silence of money” (“It is not strange for the dance/ this columbarium that makes the eyes yellow./ From the sphinx to the cash box there is a tense thread/ that spears the heart of all poor children./ The primitive momentum dances with the mechanical momentum./ Ignorant in its original light frenzy”). By then the stock market crash had happened and the world was plunging into the Great Depression. Fourteen years earlier, in 1915 Paul Strand, took what would be one of his most emblematic photographic images and a reference in the history of urban photography. These are not the Stock Exchange columns – as one would think from the title – but one of the banks on this street, which takes its name from a symbolic wall. Seen in perspective this image taken by Strand contains a thick silence, a tense atmosphere that seems to anticipate catastrophe. We are caught up in the composition of the image, the balance between form and story. The city and its broken edges by the sinuous steps of the urbanites. The large geometrical shapes contrast with the human proportions, the straight lines with the irregularity of the impressionistic, faded and dancing shadows. In the image there is a strange dialectic between the rigid geometry of the building and the walkers in their frozen motion. There is no improvisation, the photographer has prowled the light to capture it at the precise moment when the lights and shadows underline, in their maximum expression, the difference between walking humanity and an architecture of monumental proportions. The dark, impenetrable interior of the building, despite its enormous windows, resembles a temple, a temple of the gods of money.

Strand was 25 when he took this snapshot, the same age I was when I first went to New York in the late 1980s. At the time, I was very impressed by the huge shop windows on Fifth Avenue. I took a photograph, in which, next to some business suits you can see a large photograph of the Wall Street bull sculpture. I can now see that the photographer’s name is engraved on the window pane: Jeff Mermelstein, that sassy New York photographer who assaults passers-by with his camera, in a compulsive desire to create a documentary. In the other corner of the window there was a text printed on the glass that more or less reads: “Wall Street reflects the flight based on fear… the American psyche in every situation, circumstance and event. It is a daily reminder of our primitive predatory impulses. I read it again now and I can see the message is already embedded in Paul Strand’s photograph as a visionary prophecy. Mermelstein could be to liquid Postmodernity what Paul Strand was to Modernity at the beginning of the 20th century and the surfacing of the avant-garde. Only Strand’s metaphor contains an aesthetic approach that, like the verses of Lorca’s Poet in New York, are difficult to imitate or overcome by the many epigones that have succeeded them throughout a century.

Amalia Iglesias Serna is a writer.