Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Robert Frank : An Appreciation

The great Swiss photographer published  his book "The Americans" in 1958.  And in 2008 with the release of the second edition to mark the its fiftieth anniversary of the first publication,  it is still regarded
 as a seminal work in American photography and art history. To date there are nine separate editions not counting those of foreign languages.  It is the work for which Robert Frank is most clearly associated.

In 1955 Frank, a Swiss émigré, received a grant with the help and influence of the great photographer Walker Evans. Evans own first book was "American Photographs".  He saw Frank as heir to his vision.
He traveled across the United States with the underwritten grant and documented the spectrum of its people and society. He shot people - old and young, black and white, the rich and the poor - Some of the people are happy, some are sad, some settings are desolate while others are opulent -  he shot in bars, hotels, luncheonettes parks, offices, factories; at funerals, casinos. parades, cocktail parties,rodeos; on the streets and on the road.  There are also settings showing no people, filling stations, barber shops, newsstands, dime stores. Aspects of black culture fare better in the book better than that of white culture.
Included are jukeboxes, cars, lots of cars, buses, motorcycles. He visited mainly urban centers and
 major cities in Michigan, Georgia, Florida, New Orleans, Louisiana, Houston Texas, Los Angeles
California, Reno, Nevada, Salt Lake City, Utah, Butte Montana and Chicago, Illinois.

He traveled with his family at times. The book is sectioned in four parts each announced by a photograph prominently featuring an American flag.  In short it is a poetic portrait by a young photographer in his adopted country where all is new and nothing was taken for granted. By the
 same token much of the push back he received was by an country that did not wish to recognize itself.

A chance meeting with Jack Kerouac back in New York in 1957 brought about the writings and introduction for the American publication. There is also a French edition.  Frank took over 28,00 frames of which only 83 made the cut for the initial printing.

Franks ambivalence with American culture gave his photography tension and contrast. Its wealth, racial and social differences added to the realities of the optimism of the 1950's.  Robert Franks use of radical focus, low lighting exposures and non traditional cropping did not aid his books accepts nor his photographic techniques.  The first publishing of Les Americans was by Robert Delpire in Paris, 1958.  A year later Grove Press in 1959 published the american edition where it received substantial criticism.
Some of the terms tossed about by Popular Photography to describe his images were "meaningless blur, grainy,muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness." It was with the relationships Frank held with Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet and Jack Kerouac, the beat writer, that the book slowly gained an audience.  At the time the New Yorker gave brief notice that called it "a beautiful social comment"
expressed with "brutal sensitivity".  Minor White a leading photograph editor with Aperture called it "utterly misleading! A degradation of a nation".  To say the least the book sold less than 1200 copies
and nearly went out of print.

The overt influence on me can not be denied. Though I must admit the photographic technique took me by surprise. It was not the truth telling synonymous with street photography today that I knew.  Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson were inspired and encouraged by Frank. Those of us who came of age in the 70's and 80's absorbed and reflected on the visual lessons in many ways. Stephen Shore, Eugene Richards, James Naachtwey, Thomas Roma, Gilles Peress, and Mitch Epstein to name a few.

"The Americans" by Robert Frank ushered in doubt, non - optimistic, even agnosticism to photography. It is now deep rooted and permanent in documentation.  No one has yet come along to convince us that a mimetic visual relationship is any stronger to the actual art of seeing.

The young photographers of today are faced with other demands and possibilities of digital photography.
The waning interest is off set by manipulation, narrative, scale and deliberate cut and paste control of image.  The legacy of Robert Frank and The Americans will always be necessary visual language.

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