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.

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