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Robert Frank @ SFMOMA

Ranch Market – Hollywood, 1956

In the early and middle years of the 20th century, many photographers crisscrossed the American outback in search of the national character. None, however, delivered a portrait that came even close in force to the rough, poetic, critical vision that Frank laid out in “The Americans”. First published in France in 1958 and then released in the U.S. by Grove Press in 1960, its 83 grainy, loosely composed B&W images exposed the fissures in American life that WWII had only temporarily paved over. In the course of a two-year, 10,000-mile road trip begun in 1955 with a Guggenheim grant, Frank cast a cold, yet compassionate, eye on racism, economic inequality and consumerism. His view, as revealed through a self-selected prism of cars, bars and lunch counters, religious symbols, politicians and factory workers rubbed many Americans the wrong way because it did not reflect their gleaming self-image.

Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and others had, of course, undertaken similar journeys under the auspices of the WPA. But what made Frank revolutionary was how he undermined “straight photography” with a bold, highly subjective approach that, over time, helped knock the wind out of “objective” reportage.  In the history of photography, his work arrived at a critical juncture: when journalism was just beginning to cross over into art. 

 

Chicago, 1956; Coffee Shop, 1956; Crosses on Scene of Highway Accident – U.S. 91, Idaho, 1956

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Frank’s timing couldn’t have been better. When the 23-year-old Swiss immigrant hit in New York in 1947, he quickly became immersed in every artistic movement that was sweeping the city: bebop, Abstract Expressionism, Beat poetry and, most importantly, the photography of fellow travelers like Harper’s Bazaar Art Director Alexey Brodovitch and Louis Faurer. Their work, as curator Sarah Greenough points out, was “edgy, critical and often opaque at a time when photography was generally understood to be wholesome, simplistic and patently transparent.” Frank’s was raw, blurry, haphazardly composed, over- or under-exposed and oftentimes highly ambiguous. Its feral energy, which emphasized movement over stasis and opacity over clarity, violated the hygienic principles that ruled commercial and editorial photography, and it did so unapologetically.  “I’m like the crows who pick food out of the garbage,” Frank said in 1997. “They get the good pieces."
 
Public Park – Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1955
“Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans”, the latest of several Frank surveys that have appeared over the years, traces the artist’s evolution from his early years in Europe through the publication of “The Americans”, and then on its aftermath a 1985 film (“Home Improvements”) in which Frank supervises the destruction of his work, the remains of which are displayed at the end of the show in plexiglass box, looking like a Rauschenberg combine. Between these end points we see – through hundreds of prints, artist’s books, contact sheets, work prints and a wall-length replica of the maquette that Frank used to sequence “The Americans” – exactly how he developed as an artist.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1955
Picking highlights from of a show like this, whose individual components, practically to a picture, are icons is difficult, if not impossible. Frank spent four months editing 10,000 images down to fewer than 100 pictures, and there’s not a weak one in the bunch. Yet it would be wrong to say that the 83 that did make the final cut are substantially better than those that appeared in Frank’s previous books, most notably “Black White and Things. His work, as this show demonstrates, is of a piece. His singular genius was taking cinematic sequencing (as practiced by artists like Bill Brandt and Jacob Tuggener) and applying it to still photography to create a visual language that coheres around reoccurring themes fleshed out with a repertoire of now-standard techniques: low light, muddy tonality, movement, looming shadow figures, blown-out highlights, off-kilter camera angles, cropped heads and torsos, and an often confrontational style, particularly when photographing African-Americans. At the same time, Frank could just as easily assume a fly-on-the-wall stance when it served his needs, which was often. 
St. Francis, Gas Station and City Hall – Los Angeles, 1956
Some of his most effective pictures are of people in diners and lunch counters – places that in Europe would have been points of communal bonding, but in Frank’s oeuvre are all about alienation.  I’m thinking in particular of “Drug Store – Detroit”, where a group of men sit elbow-to-elbow, uncommunicative, and of “Ranch Market – Hollywood”, where a waitress beneath a “Merry Christmas” sign stands stone-faced beneath the visage of a grinning Santa. 
 
Colliding signifiers, either within a single frame, or created through sequencing, were Frank’s stock-in-trade, and this exhibit, like several previous retrospectives, replicates the original order of Frank’s pictures as they appeared in the book. In “St. Francis, Gas Station and City Hall – Los Angeles”, a cross-wielding statute of the saint seems to be offering a benediction to a pair of service stations. That picture is paired with a desert shot of a shaft of light penetrating clouds. The latter illuminates three roadside crosses in the manner of a Byzantine Annunciation painting – evidence that Frank considered car culture to be America’s true religion. Similarly, “Santa Fe, New Mexico” shows a sign that reads “Save” towering above a group of gas pumps, as if gasoline were salvation itself – a pictorial representation that echoed, years later, throughout Ed Ruscha’s work. Other cheap sentiments Frank brought to light include nominal ideas of affection, as in “Department Store – Lincoln, Nebraska”, where a sign instructs shoppers to “Remember Your Loved Ones” with 69-cent plastic flowers. As for love itself, Frank’s most sexually charged scene takes place against a backdrop of automobiles in “Public Park – Ann Arbor, Michigan”. 
Convention Hall – Chicago, 1956
Media, celebrity, gender roles and the loneliness of the open road also figure prominently in “The Americans”; but in the main, it’s Frank’s juxtapositions – of rich and poor, power and powerlessness, engagement and apathy – that fuel his enterprise. While such pairings shocked in 1960, when rumblings of social discontent were starting to cleave the land, they feel somewhat belabored today, like statements of the obvious. Still, the best of Frank’s pictures – and there are many – stand on their own. “Convention Hall – Chicago”, taken at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, shows a cigar-smoking union boss cajoling a politician whose shrinking body language says everything you need to know about the mechanics of corruption. Likewise, “Charleston, South Carolina” and “Canal Street – New Orleans” sum up the sorry state of race relations in America probably better than anything done during this period; read left to right, it is a perfect representation racial hierarchy (white men on top; black women at the bottom) as it existed in 1955. 
 
Indianapolis, 1956; Charleston, South Carolina
Frank made plenty of these point-blank statements, but he also proved that he could create ambiguity just as competently. We’ll never know , for example, what the four men leaning against their cars in “Funeral – St. Helena, South Carolina” were thinking; nor can we know what the two people on the motorcycle in “Indianapolis” were staring at so sadly and so intently. 
In 1951 the artist said he wanted viewers to look at his pictures and “feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”  We do.
But we didn’t in 1960.  When “The Americans” first appeared it was roundly denounced.  Popular Photography called it “a wart-covered picture of America.” Aperture accused Frank of letting his pictures “be used to spread hatred among nations.” The San Francisco Chronicle said his technique was “flawed by meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.”
Canal Street – New Orleans, 1955

Frank stood his ground, and by the end of the decade he was universally hailed (and widely imitated) as legions of followers continued to push street photography deeper and deeper into the realm of fine art.  For proof, one need only look at the work of artists like Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Danny Lyon, Lee Friedlander, Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shore to measure Frank’s influence. 

 As Frank explained: “I am always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is constantly changing.”

 
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– DAVID M. ROTH
 
“Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans” runs though August 23 at SFMOMA. 

 

 

 

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  1. […] that look like mash-ups of Richard Avedon (from his “In the American West” period), Robert Frank (from “The Americans”) and the fractured, collage portraits that David Hockney made in […]


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