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Robert Frank imagines America

Discussed in this essay:

The Americans, by Robert Frank. Steidl/National Gallery of Art. 180 pages. $39.95.

Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, edited by Sarah Greenough. Steidl/National Gallery of Art. 503 pages. $85.

When I was eight, my family took a road trip from New York City to Colonial Williamsburg. On the drive home we detoured through downtown Richmond. This was in 1955. Each time we pulled up at a stoplight beside a city bus, I noticed that only white people sat in front and only black people in back. When I asked my parents why that was, their silence was pained and embarrassed. My mother whispered that she didn’t want to upset my younger brother. She told me to hand her my Magic Slate, a cardboard rectangle sheeted with an acetate film on which you drew with a stylus. Then you lifted the plastic film, and presto, your drawing was gone.

I don’t remember exactly what my mother wrote on the slate. A short lesson on segregation. Then she lifted the magic film. Now you see it, now you don’t.

I’d forgotten the incident until this past summer. What brought it to mind was the cover of Robert Frank’s photo essay The Americans, which has been reissued by Steidl and the National Gallery of Art as a new version, altered and re-edited under Frank’s supervision, of the 1959 Grove Press edition. The cover image, “Trolley—New Orleans,” is the same one that appeared on the front of the book fifty years ago. Taken through the windows of a streetcar, the photo captures the abstracted or attentive expressions of the passengers inside. Strictly sorted by race, men, women, and children, black and white, gaze dreamily out at the world or directly at the young photographer traveling back and forth across America to record what the country looked like in the final years of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency.

The fact that The Americans has been with us for half a century is an invitation to compare the nation Frank found with the one we now inhabit. Our cityscapes and the landscapes are of course transformed, and one can spend hours puzzling over the reasons people looked so different then, a fact that cannot be attributed simply to surface changes in fashion and coiffure. The jukeboxes that so dazzled Frank have disappeared into museums and private collections; men no longer wear hats or smoke cigarettes with the same panache.

It could, I suppose, be argued that the distance between today and the 1950s can be measured by the difference between Barack Obama and Eisenhower, who makes a cameo in The Americans, his presidential portrait hung askew, sharing a formal-wear store window with a headless mannequin in a tuxedo. But the real measure of progress and stasis is always less straightforward and clear cut. I happened to be looking at The Americans on the day Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Cambridge, Massachusetts, cop had their much-publicized misunderstanding about whether Gates, an African American, lived in his own house. And the animosity that The Americans incurred on its appearance is all too reminiscent of the era from which we are (let us hope) only now emerging, when a calculatedly whipped-up sense of menace fostered an atmosphere in which the truth, or indeed any criticism whatsoever, was condemned as unpatriotic, a danger to our freedoms and to the most cherished principles on which our nation was founded.

The story behind The Americans is by now familiar, or should be. Born in Switzerland in 1924 to Jewish parents, having learned his craft through a series of apprenticeships to several masters of Swiss photography and design, Robert Frank arrived in New York in 1947, got a job at Harper’s Bazaar, discovered that fashion work wasn’t for him, and left to travel through Central and South America, then Europe. He returned to New York, where his work began to attract serious attention and where he became involved in an art scene that included Beat poets and abstract-expressionist painters. Walker Evans was his mentor, friend, traveling companion, and occasional employer, hiring Frank to photograph, for Fortune magazine, businessmen and politicians riding the “Congressional” express train between New York and Washington, D.C.

In the spring of 1955, Frank received a Guggenheim grant for a somewhat vague project (photographing America) that he outlined in an application ghostwritten by Evans and supported by letters from Evans, Edward Steichen, Alexander Liberman, and Meyer Schapiro. What Frank had in mind, he (or Evans) told the foundation, was “observation and record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere. . . . A small catalog comes to the mind’s eye: a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none.”

The Americans must surely be among the most celebrated and (artistically, if not at first commercially) successful Guggenheim projects ever funded. Frank used his grant as promised, photographing America during a series of trips—covering more than thirty states and 10,000 miles in nine months—that lasted until the summer of 1956. He shot 767 rolls of film, 27,000 frames, which he edited down to eighty-three pictures that he arranged in an order to which he devoted much care and thought.

The book was published by Robert Delpire in France as Les Américains, in an edition that Frank disliked and that, he felt, misrepresented the essence of his work; the images were interspersed with texts from writers—Tocqueville, Simone de Beauvoir, and Richard Wright—that made the photo essay seem intended as a fiercely anti-American tract. When publisher Barney Rosset brought out The Americans in 1959, the literary quotes were removed and the design restored to what Frank had envisioned. An introductory essay that Frank had solicited from Jack Kerouac, and which Delpire had rejected, appeared at the start of the book, praising Frank for “having sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.” Kerouac had high hopes for the book and for Frank’s reputation: “. . . with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow [Frank] photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film. For this he will definitely be hailed as a great artist in his field.”

Not quite so definitely, as it turned out, or at least not for decades. The initial furor that greeted Frank’s work is the subject of Sarah Greenough’s essay “Blowing Down Bleecker Street: Destroying The Americans,” which is included in Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. This massive, helpful, and handsome catalogue was produced to accompany an exhibition celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of “The Americans”—a show, curated by Greenough, that appeared in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and, this fall, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Frank, Greenough writes,

was personally accused of being “a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption . . . a liar, perversely basking in the kind of world and the kind of misery he is perpetually seeking and persistently creating. . . willing to let his pictures be used to spread hatred among the nations.” The photographs were described as having “no sociological comment . . . no real reportorial function . . . [being] merely neurotic, and to some degree dishonest”; while the prints, “flawed by meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness,” were seen as showing the artist’s “contempt for any standards of quality or discipline in technique.”

However wrongheaded, this last criticism was the most telling, since in fact the most radical aspect of The Americans was not what it showed but how it looked—the precise offhandedness, the controlled chaos of Frank’s style, the formal elegance (of the sort one finds in Evans’s work) exchanged for a more intense and moody aesthetic. Highly charged, frequently blurred or aslant, his pictures are full of tilted planes and off-center subjects portrayed with a directness that makes them seem not so much photographed as lunged at and seized. This apparently unrefined immediacy influenced and continues to influence generations of artists who justly extol Frank’s seamless melding of the documentary, the personal, and the visionary.

If Frank’s style was innovative, his subject matter was not entirely unfamiliar. The truths his images conveyed had been documented by dozens of WPA photographers in work that, unlike Frank’s, was welcomed and acclaimed. But by the 1950s, it was widely, if not universally, agreed that our Depression-era problems had been burned away in the fires of Dresden and Hiroshima, allowing a cheerful, tolerant, chicken-in-every-pot society to rise from the ashes. What had changed most markedly was the political climate: the Cold War xenophobia, the paranoia that gave rise to McCarthyism and the anti-Communist witch hunts, and the pervasive insistence on hearing, and being told, that America was a paradise populated by angels.

What made the loneliness and isolation that The Americans captured even harder for the critical and general audience to accept was the fact that, a few years before its appearance, a hugely popular exhibition and its companion volume, The Family of Man, had depicted the world, America included, as one giant inclusive, warm-hearted kinship system sharing the same joys and sorrows. Organized by Edward Steichen, and featuring several of Frank’s photos, the show encouraged its audience to see photography as a merry postman delivering candy hearts. And now that very same messenger was bringing terrible news. By 1959, The Family of Man had become a beloved cultural icon and a coffee-table must. The Americans, by contrast, sold just over a thousand copies, and roughly a year after publication, Grove Press let it go out of print. “For all his effort,” writes Greenough, “Frank made $817.12.”

During the 1966 Soviet show trial of Andrey Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, the two writers were charged with having written work that subverted the state and “slandered ordinary Soviet people.” In a speech that constitutes an eloquent defense of literature in particular and art in general, Daniel tried to explain to the prosecutor the personal nature of art, and the difference between creating unpleasant characters and deliberately insulting an entire population, though one might well ask why even that should be a crime punishable by hard labor—five years for Daniel, seven for Sinyavsky.

One can hear a similar note in Robert Frank’s responses to the scorn with which The Americans was greeted. “Life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love.” Invoking the aesthetic guidance of the heart and of intuition, Frank repeatedly spoke of his work, as had Kerouac and Steichen, in terms of poetry. “When people look at my pictures,” Frank wrote, early in his career, “I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” The Amercans has since been the subject of all manner of essays, reviews, and reappraisals, and yet Frank’s own invocation of the longing to reread a line of verse may still constitute the most accurate description of the experience of looking at his work.

Doubtless, some future scientist will identify the neurological event that transpires when we read a line of Elizabeth Bishop or regard Frank’s “Barber shop through a screen door—McClellanville, South Carolina,” a photo of a regal barber’s chair presiding over its kingdom, deserted by humans, overseen only by the tools of the barber’s trade and a row of bottles containing preparations to tame and add luster to a gentleman’s hair. We rapidly “get” the play of trompe l’oeil created by the screen door imposing its shadowy geometric grid on the room, and the glass behind the screen reflecting a blurred image of the streetscape. The thronelike chair appears to be at once outside and inside a room filled with vegetation. Also dimly reflected is the shadow of the photographer, present and not present, a bit like Velázquez caught in the mirror painting Las Meninas.

We can list the elements, the details that appear in the photo, and yet are unable to explain why the image haunts us with nostalgia for the past, even if our own past has nothing to do with barbershops or South Carolina. The reason we keep looking is the same reason we reread Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” This time, we imagine, we will get closer to the heart of the work instead of merely staring at it from across a divide: the gap between understanding and mystification, between poetic or visual language and the language of the grocery list. How can we give a name to the expressions on the faces of the two Latin guys vamping in semi-drag in Frank’s “New York City,” or to the stance of their friend, concealing his face behind the flamenco fan of his fingers? Why does reading Philip Larkin’s great poem “Aubade” make us feel as if we are just seeing the first light of dawn after a long, tormented night? We read it again, we look at the photo again, the “meaning” remains elusive.

Nor can we quite identify the source of the emotion with which the poem or the photo affects us. Is the emotion the artist’s, the subject’s, the reader’s, or the viewer’s? Frank quotes a line from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “It is only with the heart that one can see right; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Surely that emotion was part of what Frank’s early critics found so disturbing: his heartfelt passion for his subjects, his raging or mournful insistence on showing us what we would prefer not to see.Frank made some detailed lists and notes to help him focus his project. It’s remarkable how closely the catalogue of things and types in which Frank expressed interest matched the roster of things and types that would ultimately catch his eye. Cars, lunch counters, five-and-dime stores, drive-ins, parks, golf courses, post offices, train stations, elevators, socialites, cowboys, flags. Clearly, the list is weighted toward objects and places (which were more often the subjects of Evans’s photos) rather than people (socialites, cowboys), who are necessarily less predictable. Going out to find a socialite is more of a challenge than seeking to make an image of a gas station.

But people are the center—emotionally if not compositionally—of many of Frank’s shots: mourners at a funeral, a woman in a chair alone in a field in South Carolina, young newlyweds in Reno, Frank’s exhausted wife and kids, in their car, parked beside a highway. He also shot Hollywood stars, businessmen, and politicians. Often humans appear in combination with the animate objects (jukeboxes) or in the places (parks) he set out to investigate. Eventually, he developed a routine:

“Normally when I came to a town [Woolworth’s] was the first place I went to. For some reason I found it very heartening. I mean everything was bad.” After getting a Coke, he then “went to the cemetery. And then maybe a golf course. And then to a park. And then to some elevators.”

Later, printing and developing negatives in Los Angeles, where he and his family lived for a short time, he was surprised by how often the symbols and rituals of religion had found their way into the background and foreground of his shots.

Frank set out on his travels prepared with maps, letters of introduction, and suggestions from friends, including Evans, on promising sites to photograph. But travel is an invitation to have one’s plans disrupted. Already rattled by early encounters with segregation and racism, Frank was further shaken by his arrest in November 1955 by Arkansas state policemen, who didn’t like the looks of the curly-headed stranger in a shabby vehicle with New York plates. The arresting officer, on the alert for prowling Communists, was alarmed by the presence of a foreigner with cameras “and felt that the subject should be checked out as we were continually being advised to watch out for any persons illegally in this country possibly being in the employ of some unfriendly power.”

Their suspicions increased when Frank turned out to be Jewish, to have letters of reference from people with Russian-sounding names, and to have children whose names—Pablo and Andrea—also seemed un-American. Fingerprinted, intimidated, threatened with the loss of his photos, Frank was held for twelve hours before he was released. He wrote a detailed and dramatic description of the incident in a letter to Evans. Later, he recalled thinking that were he black he might have been killed, and he remembered the humiliation of his helpless dependence on the spiteful mercies of his captors. The cops’ equation of Judaism with criminality must have had added resonance for Frank, who had lost relatives in the Holocaust and was acutely aware of having grown up on a small, safe island in Hitler’s sea of blood. At some point during the interrogation, the police brought in a “special inspector” who spoke to Frank in “Jewish,” which he didn’t understand. Frank had told the Guggenheim Foundation that he wanted to see the country from the perspective of an outsider, but he wanted, as we all do, the right to define for himself what “outsider” meant.Much has been made of the fact that several of Frank’s photos were taken in the aftermath of his arrest. That scenario seems slightly Hollywood: squinting in the sunlight, the newly released photographer strides back to his car, hits the gas, and soon finds himself encountering a white-robed black preacher/holy man kneeling, with his Bible and cross, on the banks of the Mississippi. A few days later the young man pulls up alongside a trolley in New Orleans with all the white passengers in the front and all the black faces in back. Frank’s perspective surely darkened and widened after his run-in with the law, but even before this he was not exactly a model of Buddha-like placidity and acceptance. In a letter to his parents, written not long after his arrival in the United States, he described his pleasure in having come to a country whose citizens really were free—with one important caveat. “There is only one thing you should not do,” he wrote, “criticize anything,” an impression that would less likely have occurred to a naturally uncritical person. The sensibility of the young man who was released from jail was not significantly different from what it previously had been.

More than thirty years later, Frank described his reponse to Life magazine’s rejection of his photo essays in the early 1950s:

I developed a tremendous contempt, which helped me. You have to be enraged. I also wanted to follow my own intuition and do it my own way, and not make concessions—not make a Life story. That was another thing I hated. Those god-damned stories with a beginning and an end. If I hate all those stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end, then obviously I will make an effort to produce something that will stand up to those stories but not be like them.

A wide range of emotions informs, and emanates from, the images in The Americans: sympathy, humor, tenderness, aesthetic fascination, erotic admiration, amusement, curiosity, wonder. Anger is also part of the mix—not unfocused rage so much as the more pointed impulse to provoke and disquiet. “People You Don’t See” was the title Frank gave to one of his early photo essays, and throughout his career, he trained his lens on the men and women whom we either don’t or don’t want to notice: the poor, the helpless, but also the more unattractive specimens of wealth and power. Who would want to think that the future of our democracy was in the hands of the cigar-smoking, back-slapping, thuggish pols conspiring in the foreground of “Convention Hall—Chicago”? The shoeshine guy, in a sort of lab coat, bent over to buff the wingtips of his customer in the chair, observed by sentry-like rows of urinals in “Men’s room, railway station—Memphis, Tennessee” is a sharper and more distressing illustration of the class divide than whatever Frank had in mind when he undertook to take pictures of “the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none.” Many of Frank’s subjects seem tense, preoccupied, or lonely, and a survey of the contact sheets demonstrates that his selection process was often guided by an attraction to faces and postures, in motion or at rest, that convey a paradoxically anxious resignation or an unwilled eruption of feeling.

One such instant is captured in “San Francisco.” An African-American couple, relaxing on the grass in a park overlooking the city, has turned to glare at the photographer who has interrupted their repose. Freighted with emotion, with the hostility of the man and the consternation of the woman beside him, the image is one that Frank often cited as his favorite in the book.

As Greenough puts it,

Though Frank instinctively knew that the contrast between the whiteness of the city in the background and the blackness of the couple would be powerful, the photograph’s real strength for him lay in its expression of his experience of shooting it. It forcefully shows, he said, “how it feels to be a photographer and suddenly be confronted with that look of, ‘You bastard, what are you doing!’” Although the man kept on looking at him, Frank slowly turned and pretended to photograph the skyline of the city. Referring perhaps to the picture, the man’s reaction, or his action and response, he added: “It’s very strong.”

As in the photo of the South Carolina barbershop, the photographer is present, visible as a filmy reflection in the door, or in this case mirrored very differently in the face of the man in the park. “San Francisco” makes you realize how many works of art, how many iconic photographs, are portraits of the artist with the artist out of the picture.

Once you’re familiar with “San Francisco,” after you’ve looked at it repeatedly, perhaps over the course of years, it’s a shock to see, on the contact sheets, the shot that Frank took of the couple, from the back, before they realized that he was there. You know that their confrontation was momentary and, strictly speaking, uneventful, but you feel as if you are witnessing the last innocent moment before a life-changing turn.The better you know the photographs in The Americans, the more you may feel a fan’s curiosity, an admirer’s desire for more: more detail, more background, more story behind the story. Looking In gives you plenty of that, via Greenough’s lucid texts, Luc Sante’s consideration of the relationship between Frank and Kerouac, Jeff Rosenheim’s respectful study of Frank and Evans, and especially the inclusion of the contact sheets and reproductions of the same photos cropped and printed in different ways, so that you can begin to gauge the exactitude of Frank’s decisions and the magnitude of the effort he invested in making his choices seem offhand. In the contact sheets from the ferry ride on which he took the pictures of the Hassidic men praying, you can see him figuring out that he wanted to show the backs of their heads, and snapping shot after shot so that he would have plenty of images to pick from. You can watch Frank checking out newlywed couples in Reno until he found just the right one. To look through the contact sheets is like reading alternate drafts of a story you know so well that it’s hard to imagine it ever existed in a rougher, less polished form. And from the beginning of the project, Frank said he wanted the pictures in The Americans to tell a story.

Serendipity is at once the muse and the nemesis of a photographer who chooses to work outside the controlled environment of the studio. So much is left to chance and fate when an artist takes his camera and ventures out into the world. Perhaps, in the end, the most surprising aspect of The Americans is the extent to which, on those arduous, sad, and occasionally frightening trips, Frank made the camera and the world do not only what he wanted but precisely what he had intended his work to do.

He wanted to portray “the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.” And he succeeded not only in recording how the country looked but in capturing its essence, so that—regardless of who is in the Oval Office, regardless of how the painful manifestations of racism and poverty have changed or remain unaltered, regardless of how the appearance of our nation and its people has evolved—The Americans still seems like an accurate portrait of how it feels to live here. Like a literary classic, like a masterpiece of representational painting, The Americans has something to say about what it means to be human and to live in a particular culture, a specific place. The story that the artist wanted to tell has chapters and themes, its narrative moves through space and time, but any attempt to summarize or explain it would require describing every one of the eighty-three photos without coming close to the center of Robert Frank’s elliptical and elusive narrative. It’s why we keep going back to the book, returning to this deceptively spontaneous work of art as if it were a poem we cannot stop rereading.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her last review, “Love for Sale,” appeared in the May 2009 issue.

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