Discover String Figures with Harry Smith

NYC Collector Studys An Age-old Form of Spiritual and Recreational Play

Still from "Film Number 18: Mahagonny" by Harry Smith
As part of The Collections of Harry Smith, String Figures, documenting Smith’s adventures in creating complex shapes using only string. With mathematical precision, geometric and obscure patterns are achieved that bring about the illusion of three-dimensionality, enhanced by stunning photographs set against a black background. This aesthetic brings the strings to life, allowing an insight into Smith’s mysterious process.

Still from "Film Number 23" by Harry Smith

Here we share an excerpet from the text in the book, to understand and explore String Figures with Harry Smith himself.

An Excerpet From A Rare Interview With Harry Smith:

“It was some universal thing that seemed to be more widely distributed than anything else in places that didn’t have so-called “civilization.” It was the only thing that I could isolate off hand that was produced by all primitive societies and by no “cultured” societies. For example, string figures are found every- where in the world except Europe and Asia, except for a few periph- eral areas like the hills in the Philippines and Scotland. None of these places like France, Russia, Japan, China, Turkey have string figures, despite a great interest in games.”

Harry Smith's String Figures
Harry Smith's String Figures
Harry Smith's String Figures
“It’s a bit difficult to understand how the same thing is done in Patagonia as is done within the Arctic Circle or the Kalahari Desert without leaving some evidence in Europe and Asia. I’ve had various theories for that. Possibly it has to do with the parts of the brain that memo- rize letters (which usually seem to be around 30 or 50—the things you have to learn to write a language), because string figures don’t occur in a place where writing is done. It’s a way of tying together a lot of diffuse areas. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many good collections. There may be pictures printed, but you have to have the instructions as well.”

Still from "Film Number 23" by Harry Smith
Still from "Film Number 23" by Harry Smith

All Images: © Anthology Film Archives and J&L Books