Paul Strand and Berlin Airlift

Michael Raffety


As someone who taught photography part-time for 17 years and film and art history another six years after that, I recognize a lot of names of famous photographers from the past. One of those is Paul Strand. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is doing a major retrospective on Strand. That museum, according to a review in the Wall Street Journal, has the biggest collection of Strand photographs as well as movies that he did in the 1920s.

The iconic image that usually leads off any Paul Strand retrospective is his 1915 photograph of Wall Street, showing small figures walking, overpowered by large square columns separated by even larger black spaces of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Co.

Strand really became a photographer of note when Alfred Stieglitz published his photos in the last edition of Camera Notes.

Strand learned photography from Lewis Hine. Hine was a sociologist and photographer who documented immigrants at Ellis Island and later documented child workers for the National Child Labor Committee.

Strand was also known for his portraits of ordinary people.

But his Wall Street photo reminded me of a photograph my mother took in Paris in 1948. Photographing the front of Notre Dame, she was intent on getting detail of the carvings of Old Testament figures flanking the entrance.

What she really captured was a postwar tableau, that to me appears a timeless statement. The photograph also bears some resemblance to Paul Strand’s photography. It is a photo of a man in a suit sitting in front of the cathedral with his hat out begging, waving his hat at a gentleman who walks by ignoring him.

By contrast, Google “Paris 1948” and a lot of fashion photos appear, along with snow photos, outdoor cafe photos, window displays. A lot of these are Life magazine images. It looks like Paris, four years after its liberation by Allied forces was back in style.

All this is true, as well as dancers at the Moulin Rouge attracting tourists, mostly Americans. But my mother’s disquieting photo shows not everything was back to normal.

Germany, particularly Berlin, in 1948 was still a bombed-out wreck, even blasted tanks still spotted around the city’s major park, as evidenced by my mother’s photo albums.

In 1966, when our aircraft carrier stopped in Palermo, Italy, there were parts of the city that looked to me like it hadn’t recovered from World War II yet.

My parents toured France in 1948 because my father was part of the occupation forces in Berlin, where he was a logistics and supply officer.

Berlin was in the middle of the portion of Germany occupied by the Soviet Union. When the Soviets blockaded Berlin on June 24, 1948, stopping all land, rail and water traffic, President Truman authorized supplying Berlin by air. Organized by Occupation Zone Gen. Lucius D. Clay and Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Berlin Airlift brought in 4,700 tons of food and fuel (mainly coal) daily. By the time the airlift ended May 12, 1949, the Allies had flown 200,000 flights. They actually delivered more supplies than had been delivered to Berlin by rail.

Most of the cargo planes were Douglas C-47 Skytrains  and Douglas C54 Skymasters. One airplane used in the airlift I recently saw at the Oakland Airport Museum was the British Short Sunderland, a large lying boat that landed on the Havel, a river that flows through Berlin.

Thirty-nine British and 31 American airmen lost their lives during the airlift.

My mother just recently celebrated her 98th birthday.


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