There are many, many other portraits by Strand where he gets "to the essence" as you say and I think he does so in this one as well. It is strange that the criticism of artificiality is leveled against Strand since he is probably the one photographer most adept at capturing people so that they are unaware of being photographed (other than Walker Evans). He used a 90 degree mirror for a much of his early work (including the famous blind woman I think) so that people would not know they were getting their picture taken. One of his later portraits of a woman standing in a doorway (which is a fantastic portrait as well) was described by him as a collaboration between the two of them, but I got the idea that she said something like "why don't I stand in the door here" and he said "ok".
I'm not sure how the others in this thread know that Strand posed each person individually, even down to the level of telling them where to look. I would be interested to see what was actually said about the posing and the creation of the picture, because I doubt that it was orchestrated anywhere near to that level if it was orchestrated at all. I could be wrong, but it just doesn't fit in with his other work. This picture was done in 1953 so maybe he changed significantly after moving to France, but I just don't see the kind of control over the subject that is being described. Not that it diminishes in any way the actual degree of composition and construction in the picture itself. I don't know myself, so it would be interesting to see the sources.