Robert Frank: Remembered…

Glossing through the pages of one of Americas most profound documents, photographed by one of the most pioneering photographers of his time. A series of eighty-three black and white photographs taken during 1955 -1956 and first published in 1959 and accompanied by a poetic essay written by the most seminal writer of the beat generation Jack Kerouac. A writer with divine improvisational prose, no doubts then that this conceptual photobook became the marker for future photographic monographs. It is in itself a visual poem, for Robert Franks’ photographs are indeed an ode to the real, a homage to the human condition. He scratched the surface of this iconic landscape and revealed the people of a nation plagued by racism and relentless exponential consumption, although this reality defines beauty. It encompasses everything America ever was, a dream, a dream that belies ambiguity. However, Frank captured America’s truth, and from a journalistic perspective that is enlightening. So what of the photographs themselves? Well, over a two-year road trip, Robert Frank had amassed twenty-eight thousand photographs, editing down to eighty-three for the book. A remarkable feat I’m sure which equated to just over a roll of film a day. Reading the images and the stories contained within, one begins to grasp a dark visual literacy to Franks’ work, the Afro-American couple interrupted overlooking the residential area of San Francisco. The road trolley (tram) in New Orleans, with the segregated seating. The images vary from locale to locale, the rodeo at Detroit, a city associated with the Automotive Industry. The bar at Gallup, a city in McKinley County, New Mexico. Then there is the bikers gang at Indianapolis, Afro-Americans looking hip in Denim, that time on those motorcycles is synonymous with iconic actors such as Clarke Gable, Marlon Brando, James Dean and countless others. None the less, let’s retrace our steps a little because, of the most disconcerting aspect of this monograph. It is one I have a problem with knowing that Frank made 28,000 photographs while documenting America for this commission, we now have to accept that this monograph is a representation of the USA. 

Though in reality that must have been a dream too, for Robert Frank, because if you look at other photographers of the day. They documented certain key events that marked changes in American society Central High Hallway (O’Halloran, Thomas 1957) and Van Buren Students (Bledsoe, John 1958). 

So, my question is this; during the time before publication was Robert Frank coerced into ‘an acceptable version’ of his monograph as to superficially hide the ‘truth’ of The Americans? Or, was it, in fact, his artistic interpretation of America. If we scrutinise the landscape of America, two decades earlier, we will discover that it was well documented during The Great Depression, certainly an era that wasn’t overlooked by protagonists Walker Evans (Resettlement Administration 1935-1937), and Dorothea Lange (Farm Security Administration 1936) amongst those, whose work would represent the hardships endured by agricultural workers, pea pickers, and cotton hoers. Arguably by his admission (Art in America, Katz, Lewis 1971), Evans’ work was more objective rather than subjective, citing his photographs did not depict the aesthetic nature of Alfred Stieglitz, whose work was popular at the time. While on the focus of subjectivity, it is here then, we can relate to the work of Robert Frank, as it is the poetic phenomena of The Americans, those critics found difficult to accept; everyone knew those sort of things existed. It is how they are depicted, that makes the photographs much more idiosyncratic, somewhat even emotional, a certain strangeness. Moreover, Robert Frank was an emotional artist, his peers even confirmed his pessimistic wit. So too, do the photographs in the book show a kind of self-awareness, a reflection of how Frank perceived the human condition. As a collector of photographic monographs, this is a book that I wished I had purchased earlier, rather than later in my life. It is an incredible book, but not shocking in comparison to other photographers subjectivity, think Minimata W. Eugene Smith, master of the photographic essay in my opinion. 

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