Robert Frank's Real America

The photographer who changed the way we look at—and depict—ourselves.

America changed between the summers of 1955 and '56—and so did its sense of itself. During those 12 months, we got "Hound Dog" and "Howl," Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Searchers, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery bus boycott. Disneyland opened. HUAC's interrogations were upstaged by The $64,000 Question. James Dean died and was resurrected, eternally young, in Rebel Without a Cause.

The Alexis de Tocqueville of this new New World was Robert Frank. From June 1955 into the following summer, the 31-year-old Swiss-born photographer crossed and re-crossed the continent in a used Ford. Frank's project, the subject of the Metropolitan Museum's current exhibit, was, so he wrote to his parents, to document "how Americans live, have fun, eat, drive cars, work, etc." Did that "etc." include the magic word, "dream"? For once Frank published these photographs as a book, provocatively called The Americans, it was evident that he had also documented a landscape as much psychic as physical.

Frank's initial road trip took him from New York through the smoke-stack cities of western Pennsylvania and Ohio to Detroit; his second, from New York to antediluvian Savannah. Supported by a Guggenheim, Frank again headed south in late '55, driving a circuitous route down through the Old Confederacy to New Orleans, then Texas, taking Route 66 to Las Vegas, and on to Los Angeles. Frank and his young family spent the winter in California, returning to New York by way of Reno, Salt Lake, Butte, the Great Plains, and Chicago—which the photographer revisited for the Democratic Convention in mid-August.

Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey
Robert Frank
Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey


'Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans'
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Through January 3, 2010

'Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans'
Edited by Sarah Greenough
National Gallery of Art/Steidl

'An American Journey'
Directed by Philippe Séclier
Lorber Films
September 30 through October 6, Film Forum

Over the course of his travels, Frank exposed nearly 800 rolls of film. He took snapshots at rodeos, picnics, funerals, and political rallies; his subjects included Detroit assembly line workers, Hoboken politicians, New York City drag queens, the midday crowd on New Orleans' Canal Street, and countless automobiles. Working ahead of the curve, he completed his trip before the U.S. Congress authorized a 40,000-mile interstate highway system (and before Time gushed that such highways were "really the American art").

Intimating the loneliness inherent in American notions of freedom, Frank's photographs reveled in empty two-lane blacktops, seedy bus depots, solitary lunch counters, and all-night diners inhabited by a restless tribe of waitresses, truckers, and midnight cowboys. The Americans suggested an alternate America of dissident subcultures—the black Brandos on their motorcycles, the Native American hitchhikers photographed driving the photographer's Ford, the New York teenagers clustered around yet another outsize jukebox. Frank also acknowledged that freedom might be just another word, paying particular attention to black America—separate and unequal. That might be why, as a shabby, unshaven, camera-toting foreigner driving through the Deep South with New York plates and a "smart-alecky attitude," Frank struck at least one local sheriff as a Communist agent—and was arrested in an Arkansas town on the Mississippi border.

There's a sense in which that cop was right: Frank was an alien spy. His photographs were collected first in France in 1958, illustrating Les américains, a book of short, critical texts by Simone de Beauvoir, Henry Miller, Richard Wright, and de Tocqueville, among others. In early 1960, Grove Press published an American edition. There was no text—rather, Frank's 83 photographs were the text, as well as the subtext, with Jack Kerouac providing a suitably ecstatic introduction. A few notices were positive. Gilbert Millstein, the New York Times reviewer whose 1957 rave put On the Road on the cultural map, thought Frank had talent. But mainly, Americans took The Americans personally. The book was characterized as "sick," "warped," "joyless," "dishonest," "sad," "neurotic," "marred by spite, bitterness, and narrow prejudice." Coming from a foreigner, the title was an insult. Why not "Some Americans"? (Noting the "irritable" nature of American patriotism, de Tocqueville had observed that if one appeared to criticize America, an American typically responded as if he himself were under attack.)

Worse, perhaps, Frank depicted God's country as a wasteland. For centuries, America's "natural paradise" had been a source of transcendent value—"Is not the landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of Him?" Emerson asked. The Americans turned that paradise inside out. What had been exalted was ignored, and that which, overly familiar, had been ignored—roadside America's nowhere-but-everywhere stretch of billboards, drive-ins, and gas stations later called the Strip—was now made strange. In 1955, Walt Disney created one sort of theme park; Robert Frank found another.

We all live in Frank's America now. Following the initial shock of recognition, The Americans would become one the most influential American artworks of the 20th century. The Met is selling the new Aperture book, Photography After Frank. And An American Journey, the hour-long documentary at Film Forum this week, treats Frank's The Americans as holy writ. Looking for traces, French filmmaker Philippe Séclier revisits Frank's locations—the hotel room overlooking downtown Butte, the apartment in Hoboken, the North Carolina barber shop where the photographer cast his shadow on the screen door. Hoping to recover the sacred relic of the barber's chair, Séclier discovered the shop is long gone. Still, some of Frank subjects are alive—typically with no idea that they'd been photographed, let alone immortalized.

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