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Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans

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The world of photography permanently changed with the U.S. publication, in 1959, of Robert Frank’s book The Americans. Fifty years later, the book, now celebrated as a masterpiece of 20th century art, is being honored with a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Robert Frank elevator

Initially organized by Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, where it was first exhibited (and subsequently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), this exhaustively-informative, once-in-a-lifetime exhibition—organized in New York by the Met’s curator of photographs, Jeff L. Rosenheim—will run between September 22 and January 3.

This is the first time all eighty-three of Frank’s black-and-white photographs are on view, arranged in the galleries exactly as they are in the book. (Explicit directions lead you from room to room, and guide you to the right wall.) For those who love the art of photography, as well as those in search of America’s cultural past, this exhibit is not to be missed.

frank-road1As often happens, from de Tocqueville on, it is outsiders who see us best. In 1955 and 1956, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Swiss-born Frank, in his mid-thirties, a recent émigré to the U.S. who’d spent only a few years living and working in New York, conceived the idea of venturing into the “real” America with a small, Leica camera, and photographing what he saw. Frank had already made one powerful friend, photographer Walker Evans, who helped him apply for the grant, write the grant, then approve the grant. During his thirty-state, 10,000 mile journey, he crisscrossed the US, and made more than 27,000 photographs, some of which are now regarded as icons of post-war America.

Except for a few months, when he was joined by his wife and young children, Frank was on the road alone. (At one point he was jailed and accused of being a communist, an experience so shocking and frightening that it sharpened his sympathy for America’s downtrodden and dispossessed.)

“He sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film,” wrote Jack Kerouac in his introduction to The Americans. Though Frank had not yet read Kerouac’s On The Road, the two men recognized in each other similar impulses and spirits.

robert-frank-starletInitially, The Americans was not well received. Frank’s unflinching images of poverty and segregation as well as his ironic view of politicians, consumers and parts of the American landscape, were anything but an encomium to the “good ole USA.” Equally shocking was Frank’s photographic style. Instead of crisp, controlled, formal shots, like those of Walker Evans— the kind seen in Life Magazine and other contemporary publications—his images were emotional, dynamic, often dark, blurry, taken on-the-run and out-of-focus. (See, for example, his Hollywood picture, where the starlet is blurred, but the “fans” behind her, in focus, an image that turns around the cliché of stargazing and, by doing so, comments on our obsession with celebrity). At heart a street photographer, with a European eye for what was surprising, beautiful and disturbing about America, Frank acted on instinct and celebrated the urgency of his feelings. Yet, once his 700 rolls of film were turned into contact sheets, the well-trained artist in him spent a year on the difficult, cerebral process of editing his images, selecting his photos and constructing their sequence.

At first, Frank thought the book would have four sections, with clearly defined themes or subjects. But gradually, he dropped this conventional idea for a subtler form of narrative. As he wrote, “The pictures are a necessity: you do them. And then the way you present them, and the way you put them together—it can strengthen the simpleness of the visual series.”

Frank--South Carolina

Today, The Americans is considered the single most important book of photographs published after World War II; its visual style and insights into the American psyche, character and landscape are recognized as astonishingly prescient.

There is much more to this exhibition than Frank’s vintage prints. There is also a display of Frank’s earlier books and photographs made in Europe, Peru, and New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a display of vintage contact sheets and letters to Evan and Kerouac, as well as a short film made by the artist in 2008 especially for this exhibition.

Frank--Flag

It should also be noted that two exceptional catalogues of the exhibition are available. The almost-400 page softcover edition ($45) features, in addition to 384 illustrations, fascinating essays by curators Greenough and Rosenheim, plus other cultural commentaries; the 500-plus page hardcover edition ($75) includes reproductions of the artist’s contact sheets, correspondance, and other archival materials. A fascimile of the U.S edition of The Americans is on sale for $39.95.

Frank--Funeral

The Museum is also offering a series of programs, panels, and conversations around this exhibition. Two highlights will be, “An Evening with Robert Frank,” on October 9. In a rare public appearance, Frank will discuss his career in photography and film with Rosenheim and Greenough. Also, a Patti Smith concert, “A Salute to Robert Frank, Artist and Friend,” on October 17. These programs, and others, will take place in the Metropolitan Museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium.

For information on the Museum’s hours, go to: www.metmuseum.org

Photo Credits, from top:

Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924)
Trolley—New Orleans, 1955
gelatin silver print
21.9 x 33.2 cm (8 5/8 x 13 1/16 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and
Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005 (2005.100.454)
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924)
Elevator—Miami Beach, 1955
gelatin silver print
31.4 x 47.8 cm (12 3/8 x 18 13/16 in.)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with funds contributed by Dorothy Norman, 1969
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924)
U.S. 285, New Mexico, 1955
gelatin silver print
33.7 x 21.9 cm (13 1/4 x 8 5/8 in.)
Mark Kelman, New York
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924)
Movie premiere—Hollywood, 1955
gelatin silver print
25.5 x 17.3 cm (10 1/16 x 6 13/16 in.)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Purchase, 2002
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924)
Charleston, South Carolina, 1955
gelatin silver print
41.3 x 59.1 cm (16 1/4 x 23 1/4 in.)
Susan and Peter MacGill
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924)
Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955
gelatin silver print
21.3 x 32.4 cm (8 3/8 x 12 3/4 in.)
Private collection, San Francisco
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924)
Funeral—St. Helena, South Carolina, 1955
gelatin silver print
39.7 x 58.1 cm (15 5/8 x 22 7/8 in.)
Susan and Peter MacGill
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

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