San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 16-August 23, 2009
Metropolitan Museum, September 22-December 27, 2009
When Robert Frank’s photographs of the Eisenhower-era United States were first published in 1959, they outraged many and provided subversive delight to a few. But the few proved both prescient and influential. Within a few decades Frank’s suite of photographs, The Americans, came to be widely regarded as one of the most important photography books of the 20th century. A half-century later, Frank’s pictures have not lost their power to perplex and disturb.
Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans celebrates the book’s 50th anniversary by examining how and why it came to be created. Organized by the National Gallery, the exhibition traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (where I saw it) before moving to the Met in New York this fall.
Frank emigrated to the United States from his native Switzerland in 1947. Only 23, he was already a highly trained photographer steeped in the modernist principles that dominated Swiss graphic design. Once in the U.S. he found his way to a series of powerful mentors, including Walker Evans, Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch, and Edward Steichen, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. With their help he enjoyed some success as a commercial photographer and the beginnings of serious recognition as an artist.
Frank was something of a malcontent, however. He abandoned fashion work and traveled to Peru, London, Wales, and Paris, seeking more interesting photographic subjects. When seven of his pictures were included in Steichen’s wildly popular The Family of Man exhibition at MoMA, Frank was irked that Steichen’s vision favored accessibility over artistic challenge and emphasized overarching themes rather than individual artists.
In 1955 and again in 1956 Frank, with a big assist from Evans (documented in letters that are part of the Looking In exhibition), successfully applied for Guggenheim grants to fund cross-country trips examining “the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.” The result was The Americans.
Although the book excited controversy when it first appeared, it came to be recognized as a masterpiece once 1960s rebelliousness gained momentum. For Frank, the project's renown seems to have raised questions about its validity. He subsequently devoted much of his attention to films and performance art that made far fewer concessions to popular taste, even of the high-brow variety. Looking In concludes with a work that Frank made in 1989 in which a stack of The Americans work prints is drilled through, bound in wire, and crucified on a board.
But that came later. Looking In also presents some of Frank’s early work, including selections from several unpublished books of photographs and photographic suites that he put together in the late 1940s and early 1950s. We can see the young photographer stepping away from glossy technique in favor of the immediacy and movement of what’s come to be known as street photography, trying to make his pictures more expressive and personal. He was also experimenting with the impact one image has on another, with the way pictures can be juxtaposed to create resonances and overtones that are more profound than anything inside the edges of the individual image.
Frank took some 27,000 pictures during his Guggenheim-funded journeys around the U.S. The show offers several of his contact sheets, which reveal some of his most iconic photos emerging from what looks like almost random shooting. For example, one contact sheet reveals that Frank’s remarkable snap of a New Orleans trolley car, its passengers’ positions in the windows and expressions fortuitously echoing the social hierarchy, was a one-off captured while making a series of shots of passersby that yielded another striking image, “Canal Street,” of a peculiarly American, very lonely crowd.
The photographer eventually winnowed his mountain of images down to about a thousand rough work prints. For Looking In, he has recreated an arrangement of over a hundred of these prints, tacked up on a wall in various groupings reflecting content (waitresses, religious signs, people looking through car windows) or feeling (loneliness, motion, stillness). The display duplicates the process he pursued for several months as he struggled to come up with a sequence of pictures that satisfied him.
Frank’s travels took him to Hollywood, a Democratic political convention, the gambling dens of Las Vegas, the segregationist South, and many other fairly standard stops. The Americans includes none of the natural or man-made landmarks you’d expect to see, however, and little acknowledgment of the country’s physical beauty, optimism, or economic power. No wonder it aroused outrage in some quarters.
But while Frank’s goal was not an upbeat portrait of America in the Family of Man style, neither was he aiming for a straightforward political dissection of his adopted country's hypocrisies, despite his unflattering pictures of, for example, a black nurse holding an imperious white baby, a sheet-covered body alongside a Western highway, or homely girls at a movie premiere gaping at a starlet. Many of the book’s images, of couples and cars, luncheonettes and families, are mysterious and poignant rather than argumentative, qualities that are key to their cumulative power.
These days The Americans’ implied critique of 1950s racial injustice and quiet desperation isn’t likely to offend museum-goers. And now that the pictures are no longer news, the wonder of how they bounce off and build on one another—even more evident when they’re displayed on a wall rather than in a book—is stronger than ever.
Back when the book first appeared, people accustomed to sharp, neatly framed photographs found Frank’s grainy, off-kilter style as objectionable as his choice of subjects. Today Frank’s street aesthetic is a half-century away from being avant-garde, but his pictures’ obstinate rejection of slickness still makes them bracing (or challenging, depending on your mood) to look at. Perhaps that's because today we're drowning in slick imagery, and technology has made extreme clarity and polish the norm. Another current SFMoMA show, of big, beautifully crisp portraits by Richard Avedon (including one of Frank himself), is more typical of the photography we’re used to. Frank’s small, gritty photos, full of meanings their maker is not eager to disclose and may not even entirely understand himself, look almost hostile in comparison.
Ultimately Frank was less interested in style or polemic than in attaining something more intimate and therefore more profound, something that touches aspects of our being that lie well outside of conventional consciousness. (It’s no accident that Frank ran with the Beats in New York and had Jack Kerouac write The Americans’ introduction.) By showing the trajectory of his earlier work and inviting us to imagine the (torturous? ecstatic?) months he spent sorting, selecting, and rearranging his work prints for what became The Americans, the exhibition points toward Frank’s pursuit of a non-linear, insistently artful vision that evokes feelings not neatly reducible to political slogans or art jargon. The Americans reflects Frank’s own defiance, pleasure, and discontent, and thereby reveals something deeply true about America, too.
Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.