Geneva Anderson digs into art

review-“Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” a capitvating study of how The Americans came to be, SFMOMA May 16, 2009 – August 23, 2009

Robert Frank, Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955; gelatin silver print; 8 3/8 x 12 3/4 in.; Private collection, San Francisco; © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955; gelatin silver print; 8 3/8 x 12 3/4 in.; Private collection, San Francisco; © Robert Frank

“To Robert Frank, I now give this message: You got eyes.”  Jack Kerouac. 

Now in its final two weeks, SFMOMA’s fantastic exhibition “Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” celebrates the 50th anniversary of The Americans, one of photography’s most influential books.  The Americans is an unforgettable suite of black and white photographs that Frank made on a cross country road trip as a Guggenheim Fellow in 1955-56 that changed photography with its somber depiction of America, calling to question its postwar optimism and very wholesomeness.  Not only was Frank’s view of America bleak, his black and white prints were often fuzzy, grainy and off-kilter in composition, nothing like what was commonly seen in newspapers and leading magazines.  But the pictures he took in two years of roaming the country resonated with deep unspoken truths, foreshadowing the social upheaval that would later come. 

 “Looking In” is an art-historical feat that not only delves into every aspect of The American’s story; it shows us how far the photography retrospective has come in terms of comprehensive research.  All 83 photos that were published in the original volume are present, including a full set of Frank’s contact sheets, a reconstruction of Frank’s image selection process, his early work leading up to the essay, his later reuse of these famous images, a new film by Frank and a segment on photographers who have been influenced by him.  SFMOMA is the show’s only West Coast venue before it moves on to the Metropolitan Museum in September, 2009.

The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the premiere center for the study of his art, and spearheaded by its senior photography curator, Sarah Greenough, who has organized several important Frank shows over the years. Corey Keller, SFMOMA Associate Curator of Photography, organized the show’s San Francisco leg.  In 1990, Frank donated a large portion of his archives from his 40 years of work to The National Gallery—making it the first time it collected the work of a living photographer—over 3,000 strips of negatives,  1,000 rare vintage and work prints, his rarest handmade book, and 2,296 contact sheets. Around that time, the National Gallery also increased its commitment to exhibiting photography by adding a wing that would permanently display the works of important photographers.

The American’s iconic status lies both in the work itself and what it has come to symbolize.  Very much a product of his time, Frank, with his unique Swiss-émigré outsider’s vision–saw and gave expression to important undercurrents that were brewing across America—racism, poverty, a culture of consumerism, shady politics and growing disconnection, alienation.  Frank photographed the same America that everyone lived in and knew, but with an outsider’s perspective, drawn to and identifying with outsiders.  As the catalogue discusses, he dismissed the notion of making individual masterpieces early in his career and instead focused on the sequencing of a suite of photos whose collective message was greater than any individual picture could be. 

Robert Frank, Political Rally—Chicago, 1956; gelatin silver print; 23 1/4 x 14 3/8 in.; Collection Betsy Karel; © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Political Rally—Chicago, 1956; gelatin silver print; 23 1/4 x 14 3/8 in.; Collection Betsy Karel; © Robert Frank

Not that single images from the book haven’t risen to become icons but his emphasis was on sequencing and creating a collective that added up to more than any single image.  This communicated his vision and gave anyone looking at these images an invitation to step into the work, into this collage of a nation, and to embark upon their own private act of sequencing. 

The permanence of the book format was also essential—unlike an exhibition which had an end date and was geographically accessible to only a few, if you had access to the book, you could take this vision in again and again, letting it chew, nag and grow on you.  Walking through the SFMOMA show, we can’t help but revisit our own individually-held notions of America, ideas born in our childhood and formative years, experiences that live inside us and bind us to each other as Americans.  I found myself often overwhelmed with deep unexpected feelings of tenderness, sadness, and recollections of my childhood in the 1960’s in Petaluma, once a small rural chicken-farming community.

Early Work, 1941-1952

The show opens with Frank’s early essays of sequenced photos and does a very good job of showing how he honed his photographic eye.  Frank, now 85, was born in Switzerland in 1924 and was a young admirer of Henry Cartier Bresson and André Kertész.   By the time he arrived in New York in 1947, at age 22, he already had enough experience in photography to garner prominent commercial assignments from Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director at Harper’s Bazar.   Frank quickly grew tired of the commercial work and set out to explore Paris, London, Wales, Spain, Italy and Peru.  In each place, he produced works that focused on one or two topics that expressed his understanding of the people and their unique culture.  He also made three books of hand-bound photographs, experimenting with vital sequencing techniques that would pay off in The Americans.  This part of the exhibition demonstrates that, from early on, Frank challenged the viewer to look at the unorthodox in the ordinary, shedding light on things that were often overlooked.   

Guggenheim Fellowship, 1955-1957

A highlight is the detailed look at Frank’s grant application to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation that supported his work.  Frank was no wizard with words and initially he produced an awkward one-page written summary of the project.  Photographer Walker Evans, who he met in 1950, was an accomplished writer who had penned over twenty book and film reviews.  Evans contributed enormous editorial clarity and direction to Frank’s original application, turning one page into four and capturing the essence of Frank’s work and project.  As a past Guggenheim fellow himself, Evans was a member of the foundation’s advisory committee and not only did he rewrite Frank’s application but he wrote his own independent letter of recommendation for Frank and, when it was time, voted to grant the fellowship.  Frank’s draft application and a transcription of the final copy of the 1954 application are on exhibit. 

Also included in this section are also two early manuscript versions of Jack Kerouac’s introduction to the book which was first published with little fanfare in November 1958 in France by Robert Delpire under the title Les Americains as part of their Encyclopédie essentielle series, which presented foreign countries to a French audience.  Frank had fretted over the book’s introductory text, wanting it to set the correct tone for his work which he wanted designated as a serious art book.   When his friend filmmaker Emile de Antonio suggested that he and Jack Kerouac, the fresh voice of the Beat generation, had a similar vision, Frank asked Kerouac to write his essay.  Much to Kerouac’s and Frank’s surprise, the American editor, Barney Rosset of Grove Press, chose Kerouac’s second and longer essay, not the spontaneous, smoothly flowing one that accompanied had the French release. (Looking In, softcover edition, p.139.)  It’s fascinating to pour over the two essays and contemplate their nuances.

Several of Kerouac’s oft-quoted lines from the American edition capture the essence of the Frank’s work—

The faces don’t editorialize or criticize or saya anything but “this is the way we are in real life and if you don’t like it I don’t know anything about it cause I am living my own life my way and may God bless us all.”

“anybody doesn’t like potry go home see Televisin shots of big hated cowboys being tolerated by kind horses.”

The American publisher, Grove Press, did an initial run of 2,600 copies on January 15, 1960, though the book was dated 1959.  This was 4.5 years after Frank had received his first Guggenheim grant.   Frank received a $200 advance for the book while Kerouac got $30 for his introduction. (Looking In, softcover edition, p.139.)   The book’s bold cover design bearing similarity to the American flag was done by painter Alfred Leslie who at the time was working with Frank, Kerouac and Ginsberg on the film “Pull my Daisy.” 

 Robert Frank, Guggenheim 340/Americans 18 and 19—New Orleans, November 1955, 1955; contact sheet; 10 x 8 1/16 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Frank Collection, gift of Robert Frank; © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Guggenheim 340/Americans 18 and 19—New Orleans, November 1955, 1955; contact sheet; 10 x 8 1/16 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Frank Collection, gift of Robert Frank; © Robert Frank

During Frank’s nine-month road trip across America, he took 767 rolls of film (more than 27,000 images) and made over 1,000 work prints.  The curators give us experimental prints, contact sheets and a very good discussion surrounding the book’s layout, including a fabulous book wall showing the development of the sequencing of photos presented in work print collages.  Frank actually took a year editing, selecting and sequencing these photographs and the mock-up process ultimately yielded additional fluidity.  Frank gracefully knitted together urban and rural, black and white, military and civilian and poor, rich and middle classes in ways they had not been seen before. 

The Americans

All 83 prints are presented in their original sequence with several large rare vintage prints.  With their grainy, gritty, shadowy and tilted frames, composed at odd angles, these photos rewrote the rules of photography.  The standard emphasis in the 1950’s of photojournalism or street photography on single summary images, mainly wholesome images, shot straight on. 

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

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

Frank used a quiet hand-held Leica and his compositions were greatly influenced by the fact that he was often shooting from his car.   What emerged was an immensely poetic portrait of mainly ordinary people going about their business, waiting in lines, moving from one place to another, gathering, resting.  A lot of the faces are heartbreaking, lonely, even empty, but the shots are not about sadness per se they are about getting through what unfolds on any ordinary day in America.  A black woman in Charleston, South Carolina, leans against a wall as she holds a white infant in her arms, staring out into space, the child looks in another direction.  Four adults stand at a distance looking at a dead victim of a car accident wrapped in a blanket on US Route 66 at Flagstaff, AZ.  The lower, middle and upper classes are all captured in moments of emptiness, moving monotonously back and forth, and towards death, in the land of plenty.

After “The Americans”

The final section of the exhibition address the impact The Americans had on Frank’s subsequent work.   The book was initially critcized as anti-American but during the 1960’s, as many of the issues that Frank had alluded to literally exploded,  The American’s came to be regarded as ahead of its time and attracted a cultlike following from many within the art world.  Fame did not sit well with Frank and he became increasingly reclusive.  Soon after the book was published, he put away still photography and switched to a film for a good decade; since the 1970’s, he has moved back and forth between the two, carrying insights from one medium into the other.  His first film “Pull My Daisy” (1959), co-directed with Alfred Leslie with narration by Jack Kerouac, showcased the Beats and also managed to capture the contemporary pulse. The film proved significant and liberating for independent filmmakers in its unpolished rambling form. 

A catalogue to keep you louping

The catalog is exceptional and is offered in two different editions, both authored by Sarah Greenough who has been working on this project since Frank’s Moving Out show in 1994. The softcover edition ($45, 396 pages, 6 4-color, 168 tritone and 210 duotone images)  includes reproductions of all the works in the exhibition, along with essays from Sarah Greenough, Stuart Alexander, Philip Brookman, Michel Frizot, Martin Gasser, Jeff Rosenheim, Luc Sante, and Ann Wilkes Tucker exploring most facets of the work.   The hardcover edition ($75, 528 pages, 108 4-color, 168 tritone and 210 duotone images) is a breathtaking expanded edition that includes all the material in the softcover, plus additional essays, a map, a comparative chart of the various published editions including notations on the various croppings from each edition, and—get your loupes– it reproduces 83 actual size contact sheets, each of which features a frame from the final edit.

August 13, 2009 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment