Eye on Image-Making: Robert Frank, the Essential Outsider

In his introduction to Robert Frank’s photographic book, “The Americans,” Jack Kerouac wrote that Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American publication of Frank’s masterpiece — originally published in 1958 in France — the National Gallery of Art mounted a major exhibition of Frank’s work called Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans.”

This exhibition, which is currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Aug. 23 and then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (Sept. 22–Dec. 27), is a bonanza for Frank fans and for anyone wishing to learn more about this iconic image-maker, whose influence on succeeding generations of photographers is still being evaluated by critics, curators, and photographers themselves.

Crisscrossing the Country in a Used Ford

At the heart of the exhibition are the 83 photographs Frank made — mostly in 1955 and 1956 — while he crisscrossed the United States in a used 1950 Ford, supported by a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Also on view are examples of Frank’s early images (he was born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland); the work of photographers who influenced Frank, most notably British photographer Bill Brandt, Swiss photographer Gotthard Schuh, and American photographer Walker Evans; contact sheets, work prints, and a 1957 maquette, or mock-up, of “The Americans”; and images made by photographers the exhibition’s organizer deems to have been influenced by Frank, including Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand, Bill Owens, and Nan Goldin.

In addition, visitors to the museum have the rare opportunity to read multiple versions of Frank’s application for the Guggenheim Fellowship (with invaluable editing and rewriting by Evans) and Kerouac’s drafts of his introduction to “The Americans.”

Impossible to Ignore, Necessary to Confront

During the 1950s, the primary photographic representation of America was to be found in the pages of Henry Luce’s magazine “Life.” Americans saw themselves — and the world saw America — through weekly displays of pictures and picture stories created by some of the world’s greatest photojournalists.

According to Wendy Kozol, professor of comparative American studies at Oberlin College and author of the 1994 book “Life’s America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism,” the vision of America presented in “Life” was specifically tied to ideologies Luce was trying to promote, namely capitalism, anticommunism, consumerism, and a patriarchal, heterosexual family structure. Only rarely were photographs published whose content disrupted this master narrative.

In other words, for anyone setting out to “To photograph throughout the U.S.A.,” as Frank wrote in a draft of his Guggenheim Foundation application, “Life” was the elephant in the room, impossible to ignore and necessary to confront.

Great artists are often audacious when it comes to overcoming the power of their influential predecessors, and Frank was no exception. In creating “The Americans,” Frank is quoted as saying he wanted to make a book that would “stand up” to “Life” magazine and its “god-damned stories with a beginning and end,” but “not be like them.”

By the mid-1950s, Frank had come to distrust the presumed accessibility and clarity of photography as a medium of communication, despite having participated in Edward Steichen’s 1955 exhibition, The Family of Man, which touted photography as a simple tool to bring humanity together and counteract the divisive effects of the Cold War.

According to Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and organizer of Looking In, by devising a structure for “The Americans,” Frank was trying to create “a form that was open-ended, even deliberately ambiguous — one that engaged his viewers, rewarded their prolonged consideration, and perhaps even left them with as many questions as answers.”

In one sense, then, Frank set out on his cross-county photographic expedition determined to be the antithesis of a “Life” photographer, and, perhaps, the antithesis of a photojournalist in general. Indeed, 30 years ago, fellow newspaper photographer Robert DeGiulio gave me the Aperture monograph “Robert Frank” — which contains many images from “The Americans” — with this inscription: “Hope you like these photographs and value them as being unsuitable for publication in a daily newspaper.”

A Strange Book

So what, exactly, was Frank up to? I am struck by the fundamental strangeness of the images. Looking at the 1957 maquette, you see that Frank planned “The Americans” to be in four chapters, with an image of the American flag opening each chapter. Although the formal division into chapters was later dropped, the ordering of the images has persisted in all the book’s editions.

The opening photograph of chapter one, a horizontal, has nothing whole in it: we see part of an American flag, parts of two people (one of whom — the head is obscured by the flag — appears to have a claw instead of a hand), parts of two windows, and part of a brick wall. The photograph’s title, “Parade — Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955,” suggests that these two people, and perhaps many more who are unseen, are sharing a communal experience — watching a parade. But the photograph shows two people seemingly barred from all experience of the outside world by closed windows and a gray wall of bricks.

We are looking in at these two people, but our vantage point is ambiguous — apparently we are hovering at some undetermined height and distance, just outside their field of view.

In the opening image of the second chapter, “Fourth of July — Jay, New York, 1954,” the American flag dominates most of the vertical frame, but it is translucent, hanging down like a scrim from an unseen support, separating foreground from background. In front of the flag, a young boy is walking out of the frame in the lower left, while two men enter the frame from the lower right. Our eyes are drawn to two young girls, dressed completely in white and each holding a balloon, about to pass under the flag as they walk away from the camera and toward several groups of people milling about.

As viewers, we are prevented from following the girls and instead are relegated to the status of poorly positioned onlookers, blocked by the flag from seeing clearly the presumed festivities occurring in the background.

The third chapter opens with a horizontal photograph reminiscent of the first image in the book — two people enclosed by frames gaze outward, separated by an American flag. But in this case the people are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, represented by framed paintings. The camera is tilted upward, making the two presidents tower over the viewer. Although the paintings are dark, the flag is brightly lit, giving it an eerie glow — and it appears to be in motion, as if blowing in the wind.

Our only indication of context is the title, “Bar — Detroit, 1955.” We have no idea how the bar’s patrons feel about gathering for a drink under the watchful eyes of their country’s father and the Great Emancipator.

The opening photograph of chapter four is a vertical image, “Political rally — Chicago, 1956.” In it are parts of three people and parts of two American flags (apparently in the form of bunting), all dominated by a shiny tuba whose bell resembles a giant eye (or lens) pointed directly at the viewer. No faces are visible — the tuba’s bell obscures its player’s head, but we see his hand resting on the instrument’s valves. The three people are squashed against a gray wall that is sliced horizontally by dark gray lines. The flags are held in place by two cords, which appear to emerge from the tuba player’s unseen head.

With this composition, Frank created a mythical, perhaps monstrous, creature — a cyclops with a gigantic metal eye and metallic innards, sprouting American flags from its head. The only comforting aspect of this otherwise disturbing image is the fact that the cyclops — to judge by his lapel sticker — was apparently a supporter of the Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson.

The Essential Outsider

Frank was the essential outsider — as the exhibition title indicates. Growing up as a Jew in Switzerland, he witnessed what was happening to Jews elsewhere in Europe from the safety of a neutral country and in the comfort of a middle-class home. Surviving the atrocities of World War II and now bored with life in Switzerland — “You’re inside. You know the future,” he once said — Frank sailed to the United States in February of 1947, arriving in New York City at the beginning of March.

The city was then a hotbed of creative activity. Musicians, artists, writers, photographers — the great swirl captivated the young Frank, and he quickly fell under the influence of Alexey Brodovitch, art director of “Harper’s Bazaar,” and photographer Sid Grossman, a teacher at the Photo League. Both urged Frank to become more experimental, spontaneous, and expressive. Despite showing promise as a successful magazine photographer, Frank was determined to remain an outsider, and in June 1948 he embarked on a four-year international odyssey that included trips to Cuba, Panama, Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru — places where he knew neither the language nor the culture.

All this seemingly aimless travel freed Frank to pursue the development of both his photographic technique and his artistic vision. His return to New York in 1953, however, brought disappointments — “Life” magazine rejected several of Frank’s picture-story proposals, and Magnum, the recently founded photo agency, turned him down as a member.

He did find a champion in Edward Steichen, director of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, who included Frank’s work in several shows, including The Family of Man. But in the early 1950s, most of the photographic world was enchanted with the exquisite formalism and visual clarity typified by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson — and perhaps not quite ready to embrace Frank’s more ambiguous imagery.

And as if he needed further proof of his outsider status — in an America increasingly beset by political and racial tensions — Frank was arrested and jailed twice during his Guggenheim Fellowship: once in Detroit after going to a concert featuring black performers (he was charged with possessing two different license plates for his car), and a second time in Arkansas, for being a foreigner (and a Jew) with a carload of camera equipment and a letter of reference from Alexey Brodovitch, whose name must have conjured up images in the arresting officer’s mind of the international communist conspiracy come to his Southern town.

Original and Influential

How to assess the influence of “The Americans” and Frank’s work in general? Rather than point to specific photographers as disciples, perhaps it is more useful to think of Frank as the person who freed photography from some of the constraints it had inherited from an earlier era — namely, easy accessibility for the viewer and clarity of meaning.

Photographers who followed in Frank’s footsteps found themselves unburdened by the heavy responsibilities of impeccable composition, flawless lighting, and “the decisive moment” — and buoyed up by photography’s ability to pack a wallop or slide slyly under the surface of social relations.

We tend to think of the 1950s as a time of mind-numbing conformity, but the truth is more complex. Consider, for example, that “The Americans” shares the decade with the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Kerouac’s “On the Road,” Orson Welles’s film “Touch of Evil,” Glenn Gould’s first recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” Elvis Presley’s rise to stardom, and the prominence of such jazz virtuosos as Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and Duke Ellington — nonconformity writ large.

As an outsider looking in, Frank had something original and influential to say about the people inhabiting his adopted home, and his message was received by many photographers who saw and appreciated his work.

2 Responses to “Eye on Image-Making: Robert Frank, the Essential Outsider”

  1. Good post.

    I wanted to point out that there are three podcasts about Frank and the exhibit available at the first link in your post.

  2. An excellent analysis of Frank's 'Americans.' 'Much appreciated your precision in seeing four Frank photos. When I look at those photos I react viscerally...you see structure. I appreciate that very much, hoping I may train myself to not just react to the emotion of a photo but to see how it's achieved.

    I would have appreciated more definitive comment on Frank's 'Americans,' possibly intentionally ambiguous? Also the who/what/where does/did photography go from "deliberately ambiguous."

    John Singer Sargent's 'Daughters of Edward Darley Boit' comes to mind--amidst all that formalism is the very deliberate ambiguity Frank uses to such divergent effect years later.

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