THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Amanda Lancour
“The Americans,” Robert Frank’s iconic suite of photos taken on a 1957 cross-country road trip is a landmark in the history of photography. A critic for the Guardian called it “perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century.” However, that is not the reception Frank received when he first showed his revolutionary images.
Frank was roundly panned by other photographers and critics. Popular Photography dismissed his “warped images of hate” and called his photos “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures and general sloppiness.” Within a decade, the reaction changed completely.
“The Americans” is a fascinating photographic study by an outsider (Frank was born in Switzerland) into American culture that casts a stark look at life in the 1950s—segregated, isolated, anxious and lonely; disturbing images that were contrary to the happy-go-lucky, prosperity-filled families pushed by glossy magazines full of Madison Avenue ads and TV sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver”.
Frank is considered the inventor of street photography. His images broke with the period’s photo rules: he shot from a moving car, sitting in a bar, hiding out of sight and on the fly. He shot more than 27,000 images on the trip, each shot just one frame, and only saw the results once he got home to New York City. Frank chose 83 images to print for the book.
“The Americans” has traveled the world since its publication in 1959 with a glowing introduction by Jack Kerouac. Yet, it was Hugh Edwards, then curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, who gave Frank his first museum show in 1961 and bought 30 photographs from the series for the museum’s permanent collection. It seems fitting that this show marks the return to its first home nearly a half-century later.
The show is organized in three parts. First are 23 chosen images from “The Americans,” displayed gallery style and printed on strips of photographic paper, along with several accompanying contact sheets that show Frank’s selection process.
Three portraits from Robert Frank’s classic work, “The Americans.” Photo credit by Amanda Lancour.
Technically, the American series is expertly exposed and printed. In The Courthouse Square, Frank chose the aperture and shutter speed settings to get all the detail of the black in the bark of the wood yet placed the focus on a man with an interesting face speaking to another man, unaware of Frank. The result: a quiet, shared moment isolating the two men as a young girl looks directly at the photographer. Frank’s subjects are both aware and unaware of his presence, going through motions of everyday life.
Frank wanted no part of his new-found success and celebrity. He turned away from still photography for a decade in favor of underground filmmaking (“Pull My Daisy” and “Me and My Brother”) and books. He left New York and moved to Mabou, Nova Scotia in 1971 in search of a simpler life. (Unfortunately, a pop-up exhibit of his film and book output was on display for only two weeks in May then dismantled and unavailable for review).
The next section, “Partida,” is a series of snaps akin to a visual memoir of his life. Images are drawn from a series of five books, termed “visual diaries” that Frank published between 2010 and 2016.
The more primitive snapshots in “Partida” are of Frank himself or friends and family. The images are unfocused befitting amateur snaps. They are not unlike what might be viewed as the “B-roll” on one’s iPhone, the lesser composed images we wouldn’t see on someone’s social media.
Stunning and quiet moments occur. There’s an intimate shot of his personal assistant, A-Chan, in very simple lighting juxtaposed next to what appears to be an upside-down caster, a simple object with very dramatic lighting. Another is of two white-glazed doughnuts side by side on a plate in an extremely drab, down-at-the-heels donut shop. Yet, Frank’s trained eye elevates the everyday mundane.
Robert Frank. Untitled, 2005/14. The Art Institute of Chicago, © Robert Frank, from the book Partida. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
A final wall contains four of the 38 photos that Frank gave to the Art Institute in 2000 in appreciation of its early support. These are a mix of fine art imagery and glimmering thoughts, reflecting dream-like states of mind, autobiographical less in fact than in feeling.
One, Was ist Das (1996) is a dreamy silver gelatin print. Another Mabou—8 o’clock, (1987) speaks perfectly to memory and the passage of time; where reality becomes more how you remember it or what you want to remember it as having been.
Hold Still, Keep Going December 1987 can possibly be interpreted as being present and moving forward at the same time.
Robert Frank. Hold Still, Keep Going, December 1987. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Robert Frank. © Robert Frank. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.
“Robert Frank: Photos” is more of a concise gallery retrospective covering his work as a whole over the past six decades as well as a glimpse into this renowned photographer’s mind. It is a visual diary interpreting life as a combination of fine art, photojournalism, and a loose documentary-style memoir. In this, I thought it succeeded.
One is able to see into the artist’s mind as he visually speaks in the same medium yet different photographic genres. The snaps act akin to the practice of a drawer making a ‘quick sketch,’ a 30-second impression in a figure drawing class, or someone standing on a street corner. I do wish, however, that a small room had been set aside to view his films or the ‘pop up’ gallery portion for review.
The show offers a fascinating glimpse at both Frank’s more famous photos, as well as the evolving ideas over the years of a master photographer, still making art at age 91.
“Robert Frank: Photos” is at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 20.
Amanda Lancour is a Chicago/ NYC photographer. She has worked in fashion, commercial and fine art photography. Upon completing a triple major in Fine Art Photography, Drawing, and Painting, she has worked for many years with some of the best New York and Midwest photographers.