A Frank Exhibit of A Master

Posted January 21, 2009 at 4:48pm

It was the mid-1950s and America was in its post-war euphoria when a 31-year-old Swiss-born photographer with a German-Jewish father set out to document the United States.

“The photographs — with some text — should be a spontaneous record of a man seeing this country for the first time,” Robert Frank wrote in the first draft of his application for a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

After his application received a substantial rewrite by photographer Walker Evans, Frank got his award. In 1955 and 1956, he set out on what became a 10,000-mile road trip through 30 states, during which he shot about 27,000 images (about 767 rolls of 400 ASA black and white film).

Over the next two years, he edited these proof sheets down to about 1,000 “working prints,” and then he spent another year culling a little less than 10 percent of those into “The Americans” — one of the most important and influential photography books ever published.

“The Americans” first appeared in France in 1958 and in the U.S. a year later, published by Barney Rosset at Grove Press — the same publishing house that championed William Burroughs, the Beat writers and Arthur Miller. Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the American edition.

At a time when America was still on its 1950s high of sunny optimism, Frank laid out an especially somber view of a country that he saw dominated by political cynicism, racism and encrusted class stratification.

The frequently grainy photos with the subjects unposed were often highly symbolic, like his 1955 shot of a black maid in Charleston, S.C., holding a nearly hairless white baby, both wearing clothes made from the same white, patterned cotton.

Fifty years after its U.S. publication, the images from “The Americans” still resonate, their anxieties only heightened by today’s economic climate. Last week, the National Gallery of Art opened a 14-week exhibit, “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans.’”

Featured are not only a complete set of prints from the book but a comprehensive look at Frank’s earlier work in, among other places, London and Peru; his Guggenheim applications and work prints for “The Americans;” and the effect that the seminal book had on his own work. Exhibit curator Sarah Greenough said Frank “had a fear of repeating himself.”

The hardcover exhibit catalogue — well worth its $75 price tag — includes a host of essays on Frank, reproductions of the contact sheets from which Frank picked the images that he would eventually use in “The Americans” and images from his earlier work, which already show his original responses to many of the then-accepted tenets in American photography.

Frank’s photography is a direct challenge to perhaps the century’s most famous photographer, Frenchman Henri Cartier- Bresson, whose 1952 book, “The Decisive Moment,” assumes that a combination of the right images, shot at the right time (or the decisive moment) can actually reveal an underlying truth.

Frank saw photography more existentially: Truth was a composite — intuited, not derived from one eureka moment. He prefaced his 1951 book, “Black White and Things,” with a quote by Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

For four years, starting in the early 1950s, Frank tried to get a photo essay into Life magazine, including a series on London bankers that photographer Edward Steichen had lavishly praised. No luck.

“I developed a tremendous contempt” for Life magazine, Frank said later, “which helped me. You have to be enraged. I also wanted to follow my own intuition and do it my own way and not make concessions — not make a Life story.”

A couple of London banker photos made their way into the exhibition, including one of a banker midstride on his way to work. That photo captures something of the urgency and self-importance of a 1950s city banker in top hat and overcoat, but also something of the banker’s own internal reflections — and his overwhelmingly gray and cloistered environment.

Frank and the National Gallery have a long relationship; he donated much of his working material, including the negatives and contact sheets for “The Americans,” to the gallery in 1990. In 1994, the National Gallery mounted its first Frank exhibit, “Moving Out,” the first solo show that the gallery ever had for a living photographer.

“Frank was not accepting platitudes; it was not Mom and apple pie, not Life’s version of America,” said Greenough, the gallery’s senior photography curator.

“There were almost no other photos at the time like this,” she said about “The Americans.” It soon became the Bible for countless other photographers worldwide.

Frank, now 84, moved to Mabou, Nova Scotia, in 1973. He became a documentary filmmaker and has photographed the J. Geils Band and the back cover of a Tom Waits’ album.

But he has never been able to fully escape the effect of his most famous book, sometimes skewering its import, like in his 1977 shot taken in Mabou of one of his best-known images from “The Americans” — a sousaphone obliterating its performer’s face at a Chicago political rally — shot 21 years earlier. Frank took a print of that photo and hung it on a clothesline, then took a shot of the iconic photo as it dangled over the Nova Scotia sand.