Robert Frank's Real America

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

The Met's catalog—a 500-page, seven-and-a-half-pound door-stopper—surrounds The Americans with massive exegesis, including maps, chronologies, 81 pages of contact sheets, and a guide to Frank's variant croppings. The book testifies to the labor involved in the photographer's snapshot, as does the Met's wall of work prints. Frank exposed 27,000 images, printed 1,000, and used 83—a shooting ratio of 330:1. The work prints are not so much alternate takes as an alternate Americans.

Although The Americans is a book, the exhibition clarifies Frank's structure. His sense of montage is more apparent; it's easier to see his visual puns and cross-references when sequenced on the wall. Frank arranged his photographs in four roughly differentiated movements, each announced in the book by the image of an American flag. The first introduces his cast, as well as the artist's knack for expressionist parody: The Jersey pol with his pursed lips, the exultant Kefauver campaign worker making like Il Duce, the conspiratorial fat cats in the club car to Washington, the frozen-faced starlet, the simpering queens, the portly soldier and his hard-faced companion out for a stroll. All are almost Weimar caricatures.

America is divided, powerful figures alternating with a skeptical, unsmiling population. These stark oppositions continue into the book's second movement, as Frank focuses on the landscape, discovering unlikely monuments and vistas (a New York City newsstand, a mailbox bisecting the Nebraska plains, a man genuflecting before a jukebox, the view from a mining town hotel window). In some cases—as with the benches of elderly Floridians—people are the landscape. The opening shot of a translucent flag presages a series of mutations: A segregated New Orleans trolley becomes a roll of exposed film; a shrouded car dissolves into a shrouded corpse and then an empty highway.

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

Heralded by the images of Washington and Lincoln presiding over a Detroit bar, the third chapter is the most complex. Here, images of images are mixed with signs of salvation. Some of the photographs are weirdly pastoral, even transcendent: the gas stations of the cross; a Miami elevator that, the operator's weary expression notwithstanding, might be the lift to paradise; an empty café with Oral Roberts preaching on the TV against the blast of sunlight that obliterates an adjacent window; cars worshipping an illuminated movie screen; the fierce lyricism of a black evangelist raising his staff down by the river.

The Americans' final section seems the most overtly political. Here, the flag blares from a shiny tuba and an outsize neon arrow directs a tiny, hastening pedestrian down a dark street: As was asked in the '30s, Little Man, What Now? Halfway through, images of mass-produced images and signs of alienated collectivity segue to brutally tender portraits of loners, then couples, some of whom make eye contact with the camera, and finally families, often shown with their cars—as is the photographer's family in the last image, bringing it all back home.

As Frank's sign-rich images demand to be read, particularly in context, so his year-long trip has its literary analogues. Taken as lived experience, The Americans is an anti-Walden, a whaling voyage, a sojourn on the Mississippi. Shortly before Frank embarked, the Paris Review published a chunk of On the Road; around the time the photographer left California, Allen Ginsberg gave the first public reading of "Howl."

Like the beat writers, Frank presented a chaotic countryside at once concrete and allegorical, vital and haunted. His photographs of a Los Angeles street evangelist brandishing a copy of Awake!, the "Christ Died for Our Sins" card taped to an old Chevy, the statue of St. Francis blessing skid row could easily have inspired a Ginsberg poem, a Kerouac riff, or a Dylan line. In his enthusiastic introduction to Frank's book, Kerouac hailed, "The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!" In that, however, the writer was expressing his own affirmative sensibility. Taken as narrative, The Americans suggests a dark pilgrim's progress through a hardscrabble land where beauty sprouts like weeds in a vacant lot—a place subjugated by images and ruled by machines, hypermodern yet underdeveloped, banal but apocalyptic.

With their iconic use of flags, billboards, and TV sets, Frank's photographs presaged Pop Art; in their dramatic personae, they anticipated the iconography and attitudes of films that would not be made for another dozen years. Frank's road trip was recapitulated in American movies from Ron Rice's underground Senseless and Ken Kesey's unfinished Merry Pranksters epic through the echt '60s youth films Easy Rider and Two-Lane Blacktop to the more eccentric travelogues of Stranger Than Paradise, Thelma and Louise, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, not to mention Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat.

Photographing himself in America, Frank dramatized a particular sort of American heroism. Soon after he arrived in New York—March 1947, the same Cold War season in which On the Road's narrative begins—he wrote to his parents, saying, "I feel as if I'm in a film." (Driving cross-country some 40 years later, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would make the same observation.) After The Americans, Frank's artistic production shifted toward motion pictures—in some, he was the overt subject.

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