frank images

Loneliness and despair. Its part of the human condition. But not all of it. In its significance, and near pervasiveness, Robert Frank has been one of the best to capture, articulating all its nuances through mainly photography, but also film as well. His “The Americans” is a seminal document of it in the American landscape, but it remains a highly personal, idiosyncratic vision of America that imparts a European sensibility struggling with catastrophe and nihilism to what was perceived as a disappointing antidote to a European culture under the trauma and anxiety and rebuilding after WWII.

( see link at end) …Few analysts have captured the sadness, tensions, ironies and possibilities of 1950s American culture and society with the depth and insight of Robert Frank. Frank’s accomplishment is rendered all the more impressive since it was done without words in his volume of photographs, The Americans (1959). The tremendous power of Frank’s pictorial imagery bore deep affinities to the existential Beat-Hipster idiom perfected in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (1957). While Frank did, as Susan Sontag suggests, represent America as “the grave of the Occident,” marked by desolation, violence and death, his images were more phoenix-like. The Americans offers, as I will demonstrate, a sustained critique of the barrenness of American culture, but along with his Beat and Hipster comrades, Frank possessed a vision of renewal and rebirth. He believed that the counter vision and lifestyle of America’s black population offered a viable alternative for white America….Read More:Read More:

---A Funeral – St. Helena, South Carolina (1955)---Read More:

Obviously, we know there is no escape from life. And Frank does carry around tragedy like belongings in a suitcase boarding the train for a death camp. There is a dripping sadness that finds it natural habitat in certain convention; very much in the Kafka sense of otherness and isolation mixed with Albert Camus and something of the Horkheimer/Adorno critique of the culture industries. America was not the break from the past to Frank, but a continuation or eternal recurrence of the grim ,seemingly hopeless destiny of individual lot and senseless sacrifice. It is great art, a testament to composition and the often ambiguous interplay between the sacred and profane. The enigmatic relation between white privilege and power and the destitute and marginalized who occupy the same nation and ostensibly enjoy the same rights.


---The woman caters to the male sexual gaze and covers her face, possibly saving herself from arrest, but leaves one eye uncovered, looking at the looker, thereby turning the table on the voyeur. Similarly, when Robert Frank took a picture of three male hustlers in 1955, two of them gave him come-on looks but the third put a hand over his face, leaving both eyes staring at the photographer from between his fingers. Technological progress in photographic image making has inexorably expanded the reach of images, voyeurism and surveillance.---Read More:

There is much of the style here of Italian neo-realist cinema, and you can sense Frank has contributed to that early template that challenged American hegemony later to morph into what can be termed the dissent industry, but already burbling with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, James Dean and the commodity of the rebel culture, articulated by Kerouac and Ginsberg. There was a entire precursor to them in the Great Depression through Woody Guthrie, Steinbeck and John Dos Passos among many others, and America has always been this child of renewal and destruction, its ironies and contradictions not lost on Poe, Melville and Hawthorne as well. Frank had done great photography in Europe before “The Americans” and he basically carried that sensibility over here, which does and does not translate into our own myth of manifest destiny and a form of the exceptional as counterweight to darker forces of nihilism at work.

( see link at end) … Until recently, no one delved into the content of his pictures. The style, however, evoked a plethora of reactions. It was Frank’s lack of respect — his careless, off-angled, acompositional, grainy images — that caused a flury of disapproval from the critics of the popular and professional photopress when the book appeared in the U.S. in 1959.  “Warped” and “sick” were just two of the adjectives used. …

---was influential in the post-war period, and earned Frank comparisons to a modern-day de Tocqueville for his fresh and skeptical outsider's view of American society. Frank later expanded into film and video and experimented with compositing and manipulating photographs.---Read More:

…These critics read his style well, perhaps better than anyone since. The feeling among them was unanimous: this was not how America was to be shown. But what was at issue was a larger matter than patriotism. The challenge of Frank’s work in the late ’5Os lay

his treatment of his subject matter and in his use of a photographic style well out of the mainstream of representational conventions. The Americans involved a matter of how things were shown.Read More:

…It shows America as a county lacking taste, humorless and impoverished. Frank’s disappointment brought an awareness of the superficiality of American life. especially the discrepancies — not hypocrisies — arising from the American lack of awareness of the self: he repeatedly points to the masks and facades that Americans put on so readily and wear so unawares….

…The white American is denied this in Frank’s book; with few exceptions only the black and the dead are shown in the landscape. Look at the photos from Butte, Montana. One cannot drive to Butte without traveling through a landscape that would rival all the mountains of Europe. But what does Frank show? — a view from a hotel window that reads isolation, and the unlikeliness of a Navy recruiting office a thousand miles inland. How, for that matter, can Americans even know their land when most of them live in megalopic cities? Americans, Frank maintains, have no sense of where they are just as they have no sense of where they come from….

---He was a Swiss Jew, born in Zurich in 1924 to a Swiss mother and a German father, and thus of ever more precarious status as his first twenty years unfolded, even in a middle-class family under the wing of a neutral state. Not long after the war ended, he left. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I sure knew what I didn’t want.” (Another judgment was yet more succinct: “How can one be Swiss?”) His boat docked in New York in the spring of 1947, a time and place that must rank as one of history’s better cures for restlessness. “Coming to America felt like the door opened—you were free,” he told a British television crew in 2004, still buoyed by the liberty more than half a century later. On that maiden trip, he bore with him the fruits of a rigorous apprenticeship with Swiss photographers: a private book entitled “40 Fotos,” not published but spiral-bound, and strong enough to win him a staff job with Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar and a demigod of energy, equipped with a fearsome eye. Maybe, in retrospect, it wasn’t such a good idea to head south, in 1955, with an admiring reference from a fellow with a Russian name. You didn’t get many Brodovitches in McGehee. As Frank told Evans: The lieutenant leand back and said: Now we are going to ask you a question: Are you a commie? I said no. He said, Do you know what a commie is? I said yes. Read more

…The American, Frank says (and he says so over and over), has no culture, no history, no relationship to the land. America is like a land of children wearing masks, acting out roles with no comprehension of the self, no awareness of the infinity of history and humanity, no awareness of what is called culture….Read More:

The dilemma of the modern individual despite Frank’s talent, vision and angst ends up as just another cultural commodity. Like the high art it reaches for, the Luis Bunuel style narrative, it still is not much different than Hollywood films or Norman Rockwell depictions of Americana in that Frank is also playing to his choir and adopting convention of an avant-garde aesthetic, a certain distortion and fragmentation of the human figure that modernist art was projecting; a certain atheist perspective where spirituality was a byproduct of the material considerations. Its a different type of pose and gesture, just one bleaker and more discouraged than found in an Ozzie Sweet, David Rubinger, Paul Schuzter, Cartier-Bresson and others. The enigma is why some people let others assume power and what is in the psyche of these powerless that is unexplainable….

---Read More:


( see link at end) Most striking about The Americans is me amalgam of public and private which in combination raises the effectiveness of both. The Americans is overtly public in subject matter, yet deeply infused with personal feelings — recognizable even in me 1950s as a tone of disapproving sadness which had never before been allowed in photojournalism. Gaylord Herron called it “Robert Frank’s diary,” but many saw the book instead as an accurate reflection, and hence as a critique of America.

In fact it was both, and much more, because Frank brought to a close photography’s quest for the decisive moment — the ever more decisive moment which had been defined in terms of the perishable and publishable moment which was easily recognized and quickly read by the public. In The Americans, America stood still, frozen into a frightful pose between moments. But it took years to recognize that the book went far beyond diary and document, that in rejecting the mannered and predictable style of photojournalism of the period Frank produced a radical critique of photography itself. Radical, because it returned photography to the vernacular of vision: in The Americans the everyday is recognized as it is seen and this recognition makes me book amazingly undated even after twenty-five years. And a critique because any return to the vernacular implicates the established style of photography in a falsification of the real world. “You can photograph anything now,” Robert Frank said in 1961.

The suggestion of this double critique — of the social structure and of the established diction of photography — comes from more than just speculative theory. The specific composition of the book can be recognized as an Anatomy which deftly dissects America, organ by organ (stopping only at the heart) and is clearly put forth in the tradition of Rabelais and Swift, of Goya and Daumier.  But a look at the overall plan of me book reveals it to be more like a perverse parody of Edward Steichen’s 1955 catalogue for the exhibition, “The Family of Man.” It covers the same range of topics but from an altered viewpoint that reverses the implicit argument that the political system proceeds from the individual. And there are clear parallels — the introduction by Jack Kerouac, for example, which mocks Carl Sandburg’s introduction to The Family of Man. The piper of The Americans is the American flag.

There would be a remarkable efficiency in such a project, for a parody of The Family of Man would critique both the implicit purpose of Steichen’s exhibit — to sell the American way of life — and the explicit assumption that this could be done photographically — that photography comprises a universal language. Steichen’s show was the most heavily attended photographic exhibit in MoMA’s history, and the catalogue a still in print today. This attests to the persistence of Steichen’s premises and points to the acuity of Frank’s choice for a possible starting point. Read More:
Walker Evans:That Frank has responded to America with many tears, some hope, and his own brand of fascination, you can see in looking over the rest of this pictures of people, of roadside landscapes and urban cauldrons and of semi-divine, semi-satanic children. He shows high irony towards a nation that generally speaking has it not; adult detachment towards the more-or-less juvenile section of the population that came into his view. This bracing, almost stinging manner is seldom seen in a sustained collection of photographs. It is a far cry form all the woolly, successful “photo-sentiments” about human familyhood; from the mindless pictorial salestalk around fashionable, guilty and there fore bogus heartfeeling. Read More:

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2 Responses to frank images

  1. Sam says:

    The image of two girls included with Frank’s work above is actually not Frank at all, but the work of Sally Mann. “Candy Cigarette” from 1989. Similar styling, but not Frank.

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