A title page for a catalogue that accompanied a photography exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in 2009.

More on Robert Frank

I decided to dive deeper into the photography of Robert Frank. Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” is the catalogue that accompanied an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in early 2009. The catalogue is organized into chapters of Frank’s life and examines how these various time periods impacted his art.

I wrote about my first experience with Robert Frank’s The Americans after being inspired by a podcast. Having spent several weeks with the 370-page catalogue, I am now able to appreciate his evolution as a photographer (and, later, beyond photography).

I was fascinated by advice from Brodovitch (a photographer who Frank studied with in the 1940s):

He urged them [his students] to use blur, imprecise focus, and large foreground forms; to bleach their negatives; to radically crop and distort their prints; to print two photographs on top of each other; and even to put gauze over the lens of their enlargers — to do anything, in short, to capture not the facts of a scene or event but their experience of it.

Greenough, Sarah. “Resisting Intelligence: Zurich to New York.” Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans”, edited by Sarah Greenough, National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with Steidl, 2009, p. 18.

As Frank travelled America on his Guggenheim Fellowship, and especially after a worrisome experience in Arkansas, his approach changed:

No longer striving for poetic effect or even beautiful photographs, he now openly sought to express his opinions about what he saw — his anger at the abuse of power, his suspicion of wealth and its privileges, his support for those less fortunate, and, most of all, his fears about the kind of culture he saw emerging in this country.

Greenough, Sarah. “Disordering the Senses: Guggenheim Fellowship.” Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans”, edited by Sarah Greenough, National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with Steidl, 2009, p. 128.

I was also intrigued by the approach of Storylines, which opened in London in 2006. Philip Brookman writes that it

began with a complete set of enlarged proof sheets detailing every strip of film containing a negative that was published in The Americans. Here one could study Frank’s work frame by frame with a sense of continuity to see what came before and what came after the iconic images that are known.

Brookman, Philip. “The Silence of Recognition: Exhibiting Robert Frank’s Americans.” Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans”, edited by Sarah Greenough, National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with Steidl, 2009, p. 331.

I wish I could have seen that exhibit. 

Over 60 years have passed since Robert Frank travelled America, responding to what he saw and experienced. His images continue to demonstrate the work that we human beings who call ourselves Americans have in front of us as we enter the third decade of the 21st century.

An empty cardboard photo frame appears in the center. It is surrounded by seven images that were stored in the frame.

Hidden Images

A cardboard folder had additional images behind the two on display. Always remove images from frames or folders and check to see what else is there!

Five hidden prints

This cardboard picture folder had seen better days. I often scan photos while in their folders, then I remove the prints for a second scan with no folder present. I enjoy having a record of the old cardboard folder frames.

An off-white cardboard frame with two sides. A girl with a red bow in her hair is on the left, and a girl with a white bow in her hair is on the right. The girls are sisters.
My grandmother certainly got a lot of use out of this cardboard frame! It is not clean, but the photos inside are in good shape. Amazingly, the cardboard is not torn.

When I removed the 1960s pictures of my sisters from the frame, to my surprise, I found five additional images. The frame did not look like it could hold so many photos.

The lower right image is my mother, probably in high school. The lower left image is her younger brother. The middle image on the right read, “To Aunt Esther,” on the rear (probably cousin Sam) – so now I know this frame came from my grandparents’ home. I’ll keep that in mind as I consider who the other two individuals might be – relatives, I expect.

An empty cardboard photo frame appears in the center. It is surrounded by seven images that were stored in the frame.
Two of these folks are unknown; I hope other family photos will help me identify them and confirm my suspicions for a third.

Slow down

As we were reviewing and consolidating items from my father’s apartment after his death, I was removing 8×10 prints from old frames (some of which were broken and at risk of damaging the prints). I was working fast and talking to my two sisters while doing this. A day or so later, sister Sandi discovered that I missed an 8×10 picture of sister Sue. It would have been thrown away!

A one-year-old girl is seated on a leather stool for a formal portrait. She is holding a stffed animal. The bottoms of her shoes are showing, and her hands are raised at waist height.
Susan, circa 1953, about one year old.

My mother displayed recent photos in 8×10 frames, and her way of storing older photos was to keep them in the frame, behind the photo on display. Sometimes cardboard and other paper got mixed in with these collections. I obviously wasn’t careful enough while going through this material. My advice – slow down and look at both sides of everything you touch.