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.

A photography book by Robert Frank, titled "The Americans." It is propped up on a wood floor with a black background.

Robert Frank and The Americans

I had never heard of Robert Frank, although I was familiar with his Trolley – New Orleans image (on the cover of the 50th anniversary Steidl edition).  He died in 2019.  I really enjoyed this reading of a 2015 article about him – it was featured on The Daily (a podcast from The New York Times). 

Listening to the hour-long podcast inspired me to borrow The Americans from the Denver Public Library.  The Introduction by Jack Kerouac is under six pages, and the rest of the book features photographs taken by Robert Frank as he traveled across America in 1955 and 1956.

The most memorable parts of the podcast/article:

  • Bruce Springsteen talking about The Americans
  • Frank’s experience in an Arkansas jail and his “missed photograph” 
  • The photographer’s realization that he liked black people much more than white people
  • There is an unwillingness to accept that some artists contribute significantly to the evolution of more than one art form (in Frank’s case, Indie films and photography)

Photos from The Americans that I found myself thinking about, hours or days after putting the book down:

  • the rodeo images:  Rodeo – Detroit and Rodeo – New York City (I don’t think of rodeos in these locations)
  • Hotel lobby – Miami Beach (it’s as ostentatious as it sounds)
  • Bank – Houston, Texas (it left me feeling empty)

For many photographers, single images are memorable.  I guess that is the case with Frank’s Trolley – New Orleans photo, too.  However, as I perused this book on several occasions, it occurred to me how so many of these images wouldn’t be exceptional by themselves – it was his commitment to driving throughout America in a certain time period and then presenting us with a select number of images that makes his photography impactful.  

I’ve always thought of famous photographers as individuals who repeatedly produce single images that become popular.  Frank is the first photographer I have encountered who made me realize that sometimes the magic of photography as an art form is in the collections (and the presentation as a collection), not the individual images.  

Some may wonder if a book that was first published over half a century ago is still relevant.  I was surprised how much.