Robert Frank, the visionary behind The Americans, one of the most influential photography books of all time, recently came to Stanford for a panel discussion commemorating his 90th birthday. The panel concerned work that, somewhat ironically, only art scholars would recognize—obscure photographs that live in storerooms, private collections, and university art museums.
Sometimes it feels like art objects—the “important” ones, the stuff of Art History class slides—don’t quite physically reach us. As if the transatlantic trek was too draining and freight transporters somewhere landed in NYC, threw up their hands, and said, “That’s it. We’re stopping here.” (And from the laziness of humankind, the Met was born.)
As such, not every work in the Cantor Center for the Arts’ Robert Frank in America can hope for the popularity of more iconic artworks, the likes of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa or MoMA’s Demoiselles. Robert Frank in America exhibits 130 of Robert Frank’s photographic works from 1955 to 1959. Many of Frank’s photographs from the 1950s have been either overshadowed by the massive popularity of The Americans, key works in the photographic canon, or not exhibited at all. His stylistic tendencies throughout this decade include the use of unorthodox focus, dynamic compositions, and dramatic lighting, serving to narrate a confrontationally realistic account of American life—a far cry from the distorted America of magazine photo essays. Rather than advertising’s beaming colors and plasticized, white-smiled nuclear families, Frank worked in stark, dramatic black-and-white—the photographic equivalent of Tenebrism—to highlight the sinister nature of post WWII’s dark reality, for which advertisement was only a mask.
It may seem laughable, as if the Cantor chose to make an exhibit out of Robert Frank’s rejects—like a dog making do with the meager scraps that it had begged for. However, Frank’s incredible ability to capture moments of immense tension and emotional weight shines through, even in photographs relatively unknown. These images of American life explore the hauntingness of the everyday, the paradoxical isolation of contemporary connectivity, and the ennui of celebratory rituals. Even these overlooked photographs, overshadowed by The Americans, can transfix an audience, just as Frank’s photographs are captivated by the overlooked aspects of American society—the marginalized and the mundane alike—which lurk under the veneers of convention.
A Zurich-born Swiss immigrant, Frank wanted to explore the country that he had previously only known through the rose-tinted lens of advertisement and commodity culture, as American products streamed into Marshall Plan-era Europe. Years of stable but unfulfilling work as a commercial photographer for the likes of Harper’s Bazaar—configuring visual presentations that distorted and abstracted the world—only cultivated in Frank a desire to depict unvarnished realism. Discontented with this artifice, Frank aimed to represent the American experience truthfully and strip it of media’s distortions.
In addition, World War II had induced in the American people an acute awareness of humanity’s corrupt and destructive nature. They turned to materialism, conformity, and selective ignorance as a means of self-tranquilization and desensitizing themselves to the world as it really was. Frank sought to undermine the popularized image of an idyllic, middle-class utopia with apple-pie values—falsities propagated by the likes of Leave It to Beaver and Campbell’s Soup commercials. In capturing moments of vulnerability, he could bestow American visual culture with authenticity when it seemed to project only happiness and fulfillment.
In 1954, four years after arriving in America, Frank acted on this desire and applied to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a creative arts fellowship—previously awarded to prominent photographers such as Edward Weston in 1932 and Dorothea Lange in 1941, to create an “observation and record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States.” Frank was endorsed by renowned realist photographer, Walker Evans, and set out to explore the country in a used Ford he bought using the grant money. He captured America in a total of 27,000 images, only 83 of which ultimately comprised The Americans. Ironically, however, Frank sought to subvert the very values that Fordism and car culture purported.
The 1950s solidified America’s status as a motorized society, as 80% of American families became car-owners, contributing to new mechanisms of consumption—drive-in movie theaters, motels, and shopping malls. Iowa examines and subverts this idea of the vehicle as an apparatus of freedom and autonomy—an idea perpetuated by the quintessentially American visual culture of advertisement and consumerism. In contrast with the itinerant spirit of Frank’s journey, made possible by Ford, this photograph seems to inculcated its subject into a sort of systematic oppression—a contemporary culture dependent on technology and unhealthily fixated on expedition, leaving the American people in the dust. The subject—a forlorn, elderly woman—is engulfed a preponderance of visual data, sinking to the bottom of the pictorial space. A massive array of electrical lights, products claiming to empower and illuminate the truths of life, actually appear to envelop and dematerialize her. Her existence becomes diminished. Lurking behind these lights in the photograph is a frieze of advertisement. Advertisements promise freedom through visual machinations, but can only provide a simulacrum of it, as the American people become slaves to the machinators—just as this woman is visually imprisoned by the vernacular of consumeristic false promise. Forces that promise to bestow her an identity, in fact, isolate her. An eye, voyeuristic, hovers ephemerally above the woman, and the viewer, too, is inculcated into this system and culpable for its perpetuation.
The piece, rediscovered from obscurity, nevertheless draws compositional and thematic parallels to Frank’s renowned photograph from The Americans, Trolley— New Orleans, which graces the cover of the photography book’s latest edition. The “windows” frame certain aspects of American society to scrutinize. While Trolley— New Orleans examines how one’s agency is stripped by racial and socioeconomic stratification, Iowa examines consumerist culture’s promise of agency and invalidates it, as the media subsumes the individuality of the subject. Despite the iconic status of Trolley— New Orleans and the relative anonymity of Iowa, Frank nonetheless exhibits his skill as a photographer, his compositional and ideological poignancy as he uncovers the unnoticed moments that characterize the “real” America.
But perhaps it was the intensity of these unnoticed moments—of the America that Frank had uncovered—that caused Frank to abandon the medium of photography after the success of The Americans. Photography, temporally fixed, had rendered this destruction of individuality stagnant and obdurate—the “real” America as lasting in the subconscious as the distorted America that had inspired the works. Frank turned to filmmaking as a means of transforming disillusionment into forward momentum. Film, as a time-based and narrative medium, promises advancement and resolution. Pull My Daisy was one of Frank’s first films, a biography-of-sorts typifying the Beat Generation featuring icons such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Cassady. Perhaps Frank wanted to channel the effusiveness of the Beat Generation. Rather than simply identify the problem and mire himself in it, Frank sought greener pastures—the Beats’ modes of non-conformity, message of optimism, and firm and principled beliefs. He sought to channel the likes of Ginsberg’s Sunflower Sutra, overcoming false promises of agency, the locomotive, and revive the spirit of one’s individualistic, sunflower-like soul—radiant and beaming.
The whole of Frank’s work from the 1950s seeks to subvert the promises of such locomotives and their supposed unity by way of societal interconnection. Robert Frank in America realizes—through Frank’s extensive efforts and artistic eye—the isolation that permeates the life of “the Americans,” despite that label’s claims to unity, national or otherwise. In Parade— Hoboken, New Jersey, Frank’s most iconic photograph and the very first of The Americans that emblematizes its emotional membrane, the insignia of identity flutters mockingly, subsuming those now faceless and forgotten.
For those who want to visit overlooked artworks and the overlooked aspects of society—both obscured by illusions of the media—Robert Frank in America will be installed in the Cantor Center for the Arts until January 5th, 2015.
“50th Anniversary for Robert Frank’s Panorama of the U.S.,The Americans.” Art Tattler. Art Tattler, n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.
Cohen, John. “Is Pull My Daisy Holy?” Photo-Eye Blog. Photo-Eye, 8 Aug. 2007. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.
Cole, Tom. “‘Americans’: The Book That Changed Photography.” NPR. NPR, 13 Feb. 2009. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.
“Groundbreaking Exhibition of Photographs by Robert Frank Sheds New Light on His Legendary Work, The Americans.” Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.