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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 30 DECEMBER 2009 — The exhibition Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, tells the story of the making of one of the most important photography books of the twentieth century and one of the most consequential works produced by a modern Swiss artist. Robert Frank, born in 1924 in Zürich to a Jewish family, moved to New York City in 1947. As so many post-war visitors and émigrés from Europe had discovered, New York was a fascinating place, but it was not (and is not) representative of the United States as a nation. You can argue whether that is because New York is either too American or not nearly American enough, but anyone who really wants to see and understand the country needs to step west of the Hudson River.

Robert Frank: Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955
Private collection, San Francisco
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

With recommendations from influential colleagues such as Edward Steichen and Walker Evans, Frank secured a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship so that, in the words of his application (now in a display case in the first gallery of the exhibition), he could "photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively, the making of a broad voluminous picture record of things American, past and present." By 1954, when Frank made his application, he already had a good reputation as a magazine photographer. As other European photographers such as the Hungarian-born André Kertész had similarly found, however, Frank’s style was somewhat alien for his new market. An insightful photo essay of the Welsh coal miner Ben James had been rejected as too gritty by LIFE magazine — then the leading American journal of documentary photography.

Frank had already shown, however, that he could find brilliant images in subjects that customarily do not yield them. One of the reasons New York and Paris are so often the settings for important photographs is that they are comparatively easy to shoot. Documentary photography is nominally about places, but it is actually about people, and New Yorkers and Parisians are not shy about bringing their feelings and attitudes to full public view. Contrast that with Tokyo, where, although cameras are many, a dour public disposition is prized, and then try to recall the last time you saw a compelling photograph of the city. Another place that is difficult to photograph for many of the same reasons is London, but by the time he had applied for his Guggenheim, Frank had done outstanding work there. Consider his photograph of a banker in a double-breasted coat and a top hat, walking briskly toward the camera as an almost dream-like street scene passes in the background. And there is Frank’s disturbing but arresting image of a young girl running down on a bleak, wet street, as if fleeing from the open rear door of a parked hearse. You can’t see London the same way after viewing images like that.

Photographically, the American hinterlands of the 1950s were not virgin territory but, given their size and importance, they were underrepresented in the world’s photographic oeuvre. Walker Evans himself, along with Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange and others had done good work there during the Depression and later, but the dominant forms of American fine-art photography at the time emphasized landscape and cityscape — the surroundings, not the inhabitants. Even the best nudes (from the erotic photographs of Edward Weston to the loving studies by Harry Callahan) and portraits (by the great Arnold Newman) drew as much of their power from the surroundings as from the subjects.

Robert Frank: Elevator—Miami Beach, 1955
Gelatin silver print; 12 3/8 x 18 13/16 in.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

To foreigners such as Frank, post-war America was still an oddity. The question on the minds of many European (and even American) intellectuals of the time was: how could anything so big and consequential in the world — a nuclear-tipped superpower — appear so banal and unreflective when viewed up close? Frank, the Jewish man from the small neutral land, bought a five-year-old Ford from a friend and, in 1955 and 1956, set off on a series of road trips to see what was out there. He had no set itinerary, but he drove ten thousand miles, covering the nation from north to south and coast-to-coast.

Photography has often struggled to defend itself as an art in part because results are so dependent on the tools. The term "miniature camera" that Frank used in his Guggenheim application is an old name for his primary tool: the 35mm rangefinder. A German invention, it had greatly facilitated the expansion and refinement of the naturalistic European style of photography. The American school was not yet convinced that little cameras could do big things, although LIFE, despite its middlebrow reputation, was helping to change that. Another problem in coaxing art from photography is that the medium so quickly intrudes upon the scene and alters it: no one looks the same when posing for a photograph as when not. That puts a premium on stealth, but in the middle of the Cold War, it just wasn’t commonplace — or particularly advisable — for a foreigner to slide a Leica out from under his coat (a Frank technique) and point it at strangers in the American countryside.

Robert Frank: Fourth of July—Jay, New York, 1954
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When Frank was arrested, it was by an Arkansas state trooper named Lieutenant (later Captain) R. E. Brown, on suspicion of being a communist spy. He hadn’t been shooting at the time, but there was no mistaking that he was foreign. Frank refused to surrender his unexposed film. A long interrogation followed during which proof of the grant from the Guggenheim Foundation did no good. It was only after Frank convinced Brown that he had photographed one of the stories in his rolled-up copy of the defiantly capitalist Fortune magazine that he was released.

(Frank could not know how fortunate he was. In an oral history recorded in 2003, fellow trooper Ray Carnahan fondly recalled, "Captain R. E. Brown was great guy. It is possible that he killed more men in the line of duty than anyone else in the State Police.")

The exhibition at the Met and the hardcover version of the thick exhibition catalogue contain a number of the contact sheets that Frank made from 767 rolls of film. That would have produced over 27,000 negatives, which may sound like a lot, but to the machine-gunning professional photographers of today — the latest digital equipment permits, even encourages, the technique of ready, fire, aim — that is rather a low output from 10,000 miles of travel. Frank had to work with precision, and each of those 27,000 frames was a studied event. Most Leicas of the period required that you read a handheld light meter, that you next adjust your aperture by holding the camera at chest height as you manipulate a dial at the front of the lens, that you focus through one viewfinder, then verify the composition through another, take your picture and then lower the camera to turn a knob to advance the film to the next frame. To this day, you handle the much-upgraded rangefinder Leica in reverse from the way you use most other cameras: you compose the picture in your head; the last thing you do is raise the camera to record what your mind’s eye has already captured. For the Swiss artist who came first to observe, second to shoot, that was just the sequence needed.

Robert Frank: Charleston, South Carolina, 1955
 Gelatin silver print; 16 1/4 x 23 1/4 in.
Collection of Susan and Peter MacGill

Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans 
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Frank’s contact sheets demonstrate that he usually could shoot no more than a couple frames per scene. One of the best photographs in the series was taken in New Orleans (another difficult city to photograph — not because people are reserved, but because they are so relaxed and outwardly unperturbed, they show none of the care that the city has famously forgot). Frank photographed a New Orleans trolley car familiar from tourist brochures, but his image is a sonnet of unease, the passengers, racially segregated, staring at the camera with faces of suspicion and accusation. It is the best photograph ever taken in New Orleans. Frank had been photographing pedestrians, looked the other way and saw the trolley rounding Canal Street. As the contact sheet (a print containing all the exposures made on a single roll of film) on exhibition at the Met shows, he could only make two exposures of the trolley before it moved on; by the time he was able to take the second shot with what, from our perspective, was his slow-working equipment, it was already too late.

Robert Frank: Trolley—New Orleans, 1955
Gelatin silver print; 8 5/8 x 13 1/16 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and
Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans 
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

In one of the other documents on display at the Met, Frank talked about catching "the dream of grandeur, advertising, neon lights, the faces of the leaders and the faces of the followers, gas tanks and postoffices (sic), and backyards…" It proved a prescient description of what Frank had documented by the time he was through.

Frank spent nearly one year editing. He marked up his contact sheets and made test enlargements of one thousand negatives; a mere eighty-three photographs made it into the book. It is as if the contact sheets were the long question about who the Americans really were and the book was the short answer: a people more complex and troubled than you might have known. From the contact sheets, you get the impression of Frank as a man exploring, probing and wandering. From the photographs in the book, you read his new comprehension of a nation grown powerful before it had grown wise. It was a country fearful of a foreign ideology and power (the communist menace) that it barely understood. It had populated its countryside with signs importuning faith in God and its cities with jukeboxes. The confident but confused national adolescence that was at the core of the American experience at the middle of the last century — and that remains a part of its soul to this day — has never been more accurately portrayed.

Robert Frank: Funeral—St. Helena, South Carolina, 1955
 Gelatin silver print; 15 5/8 x 22 7/8 in.
Collection of Susan and Peter MacGill
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans 
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

We can hope for more photography books as subtle and important as The Americans, but trends and economics are arrayed against us. In one sense it has never been easier to be a documentary photographer. Now that nearly everyone in the room brings along a camera of some kind, whether a small digital in from a handbag or one embedded in a mobile phone, the contemporary documentary photographer no longer appears conspicuous. Digital shooting allows for instant preliminary editing. But photography books have become expensive to produce and difficult to sell. More important, we have entered an age of didacticism in the visual arts. In photography, the result too often is that killer of true art: obviousness. Contemporary art, with its fixation on shock and its long and painful stumble into smug self-regard, has produced photographs and works in other media that all too often offend their subjects, even as they aggrandize the artists who make them. As the contact sheets of Robert Frank show, he didn’t merely edit away images that had the sweetened scent of popular magazines; he did the same for images that, by their harshness, were conversely just as obvious. The kind of brooding but at times lyrical and under all circumstances measured response taken by The Americans plays on a kind of subtlety, wit and insight that reminds us that the one thing photography — that most literal of media — must always be is honest. But as anyone who has ever been a bit too direct with a friend about his or her choice of a lover has discovered, honesty can get you into trouble, which may explain what happened to Frank’s book:

Robert Frank: Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1955
Gelatin silver print; 8 3/16 x 11 5/8 in.
Private collection; © Robert Frank  from The Americans   
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It was first published in Paris in 1958 as Les Américains and appeared the next year in the United States. Despite the bonus of an introduction by Jack Kerouac, the book struggled through an initial period of indifference and some open hostility that, in today’s market, might have got it remaindered and then forgotten. But genius will often win out, and in the troubled 1960s, the book found an audience willing to accept the often disquieting but always true message that it had offered one decade too early. Since then, the book has been recognized for the masterpiece that it is.

Robert Frank: U.S. 91, Leaving Blackfoot, Idaho, 1956
© Robert Frank from The Americans
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition at the Metropolitan, which includes all the photographs from the book, arranged in sequence, follows previous showings at the National Gallery in Washington and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Robert Frank, who has become an American citizen, will turn eighty-five while it is still running. The best thing that an artist can do to understand his place in art history is live a long life.

Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans Expanded Edition 
Edited by Sarah Greenough with contributing essays by Stuart Alexander, Philip Brookman, Michel Frizot, Martin Gasser, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Luc Sante, and Anne Wilkes Tucker
Hardcover: 528 pages
National Gallery Of Art, Washington/Steidl; Expanded edition (January 2009) ISBN-10: 3865218067
ISBN-13: 978-3865218063

Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans
Until 3 January 2009
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10028
Tel: (1) 212 535 77 10

Headline photo above: Robert Frank: Rodeo—New York City, 1954
Collection of Barbara and Eugene Schwartz
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Alan Behr is a partner in the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. He has exhibited and published his photographs made in the documentary style in both the United States and Europe.


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