Categorized | Photography, Reviews

Robert Frank @ Cantor Arts Center

by David M. Roth

Main Street, Savannah Georgia 1955
In the summer of 1955 a young Swiss immigrant, armed with a camera and a Guggenheim grant, embarked on a year-long series of road trips across the U.S. that resulted in one of the greatest photographic treasures of all time, The Americans.  The book was published in 1958 to wide acclaim in Paris, then issued in the U.S. in 1960 by Grove, where it was excoriated for its critique of post-war American optimism and hailed for its imaginative violations of photojournalistic techniques.  “A wart-covered picture of America,” Popular Photography called it.  “Kaleidoscopic, fragmentary, intuitive and elliptical,” countered John Szarkowski, MOMA’s chief curator of photography.  
The photographer, Robert Frank, now 90, wasn’t the first to blend reportage and art. (By the mid-40s, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertész, Bill Brandt, Alexey Brodovitch and Sid Grossman had already established the aesthetic and conceptual principles that would allow photographers to break the chokehold of art-hostile photo editors.) Nor was Frank the first foreigner to follow de Tocqueville in puncturing American illusions. (Georges Duchamel, writing in 1930, did a fine job of it, as did the repatriated Henry Miller, in The Air
New York City, 1951
Conditioned Nightmare, published in 1945.)  Nor was Frank the first photographer to embark on a cross-country auto trip: (In 1939, Walker Evans, his friend and mentor, published American Photographs, a cinematically sequenced series that proved how geographic sampling could capture the national character.)  Where Walker’s pictures mourned the loss of an agricultural past to industrialism, Frank’s dealt with the impact of those developments. Viewed at a distance of 50 years, they show, with startling prescience, the stubborn nature of inequality, racism and political corruption, as well America’s longstanding love affair with automobiles, an affair that Frank pictured as kind of secular religion that cut across racial and socioeconomic lines.  Collectively, these images challenged the unspoken belief that America’s victory in WWII had somehow vanquished the problems laid bare by the Great Depression. 
His achievements in these regards have been well examined. Looking In, a 2009 a career retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Art that touched down at SFMOMA, displayed all 83 pictures printed in The Americans.  It also contained other photos Frank printed but rejected for the book, as well earlier images, books and later films.  Thus, one might reasonably wonder what new insights Robert Frank in America, a show of more than 150 mostly unseen images at the Cantor Arts Center, might bring.  The quick answer is that it probably won’t alter anyone’s view of him.  But the prints — a mid-1980s gift to the Cantor from Stanford alumnus Bowen McCoy, and his business partner, Raymond Gary — definitely expand what we know of his work.  That is because the bulk of it has never been seen.  During the cross-country trips funded by the Guggenheim grant, the artist exposed some 27,000 individual frames – a count that doesn’t include those he made in the years leading up to the project and those he made afterward. The exhibit, which spans the years 1949 to 1961, contains 23 images from The Americans, plus dozens more that might have easily become iconic had they been exhibited or included the book.  Combined here for the first time, they demonstrate the sheer number of great images that didn’t appear in The Americans, and moreover, the degree to which Frank during this critical period – before he quit still photography for film making — maintained a laser-like focus on his chosen subjects.  
Beaufort, South Carolina, 1955

Apart from size, the biggest difference between Looking In and the Cantor exhibit is how the pictures are presented.  Looking In displayed them in the order that Frank laid them out in the book. The sequencing was largely intuitive, and it was considered radical.  It relied on linkages between formal compositional devices (horizontal line-ups of people, tilted horizon lines, glare, murk, blur, grainy textures) that observant viewers could use to connect disparate events, subjects and locales. For this show, Peter Galassi, MOMA’s former chief curator of photography, organized the images thematically. That might seem heretical to some given the way Frank’s methodology has been lionized; but in truth, Galassi’s juxtapositions give us a clearer view of what Frank saw and how he chose to present it. 

A peak moment comes in the middle of the exhibition where images culled from the photographer’s coverage of political conventions set off a string of epiphanies.  One, in particular, of a big-bellied secret service agent, taken in Washington, D.C. at Dwight Eisenhower’s second inauguration, detonates the charge.  His defiant posture is intimidating, and the effect registers visibly on the faces of the reporters cordoned off behind him. Nearby it, there’s a radiant shot of Jackie Kennedy amongst delegates at the 1956 Democratic National

Miami, 1955

Convention: a goddess among the hoi polloi.  At the same event, Frank captured a close-up of Bobby Kennedy being cajoled by a heavy-set older man, one of many such shots Frank made to show the universal language of influence peddling.  These, and just about every other grouping, demonstrate how Galassi’s thematic organization brings into sharper focus the pictorial devices Frank used repeatedly throughout this period.

Off-kilter camera angles and messy darkroom effects – the vocabulary of Neorealism and film noir — have long been considered Frank’s trademarks.  But as Galassi points out in his superb catalog essay, the artist frequently relied on conventional photojournalistic techniques when they suited his needs.  His segregated trolley car shot from New Orleans and his equally famous photo of a black nanny holding a white infant, both from The Americans, are two that will forever remain lodged in memory.  Of the latter Frank said: “I found it extraordinary that whites would give their children to black women then they wouldn’t allow the women to sit by them in the drugstore.”
Overall, the impression imparted by Robert Frank in America is of a nation hurtling forward, and nowhere does it appear more strongly than in his photos of cars.  Frank pictures them blasting down highways; as backdrops to picnics and funerals; as icons of consumer desire reflected in department store windows; as symbols of obscene wealth; and as rolling homes for the working poor.  Each mirrors a different aspect of American society, and in them Frank’s talents as a visual poet came to the fore. There’s a night shot in Times Square where Frank points his camera into the enormous headlights of a Rolls Royce convertible filled with partying swells, standing and gesticulating as if in a motorcade, at once beautiful and crass. In Lusk, Wyoming, Frank again aimed his camera into the glare of oncoming headlights, turning a traffic flow into a sea of shining orbs, floating on the rhythm of a rutted road.  Many of Frank’s images of cars invoke religion.  In Santa Fe, he made a picture of gas pumps topped by a sign (“Save”) whose message (autos = salvation) is unambiguous.  In Los Angeles, he photographed a statute of St. Francis opposite a service station.  With its raised arm holding a cross it appears to be issuing a benediction, blessing LA and its car
Florida, 1958

culture.  Frank did much the same thing with the American flag.  He showed how it could be invoked to bolster almost any conviction: patriotism, labor activism and religious fundamentalism.  His absorption of Walker’s lessons about how signs could be transformed into symbols couldn’t have been more complete. 

Like Hopper, he saw alienation everywhere.  The sharpest views of it come in scenes of couples dining in empty restaurants and of single men in bars, jukeboxes close at hand.  In pictures like these Frank was operating at the top of his game, displaying a film noir aesthetic (deep shadows, odd angles and glaring light) that would influence the next generation of street photographers, Garry Winogrand in particular. Winogrand, however, maintained that Frank missed the big story of his day — the suburbanization of America.  But he didn’t, really.  That phenomenon, in the mid-1950s, had only just begun. Yet what Frank recorded of it was as powerful as any ten pictures made two decades later by the New Topographics artists.  You can see it in one exceptional photo.  It’s of two street signs and a heap of concrete pipes. Beyond, it’s desert, mountains and sky: the start of a Las Vegas subdivision.  
Neither indictment nor paean, Frank’s photos stand as gimlet-eyed views of what lay before his lens.  We know the camera can lie.  But in Frank’s pictures it appears, without malice or irony, to be telling the truth.
“Robert Frank in America” @ Cantor Arts Center through January 5, 2015.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder. 

Comments are closed.

Vertical Slideshow

Email Subscription Request

You will receive a verification message once you submit this form.