Phillip Gefter wrote an article in the New York Times about the 50th anniversary re-printing of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” and mentioned that a huge show is being mounted at the National Gallery of Art in DC. It will include all 81 contact sheets from the book. I immediately thought, “well, Museumist, now we have to get ourselves to DC… better start looking at flights!” And then, wonders of wonders, I saw that when the show is over in DC it will go on the road: first to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and then to the Met. Which is a relief, because a BART ticket is much cheaper than any airline and my bed is more comfortable than my college friend’s sofa.
There are many reasons why we should all be looking forward to the Robert Frank show at SFMOMA (or the National Gallery of Art or the Met, depending on what city you reside in.) Robert Frank changed modern documentary photography when he made “The Americans.” Before it was all about classy, well-lit pictures – as Gefter puts it, “sharp, well-lighted, classically composed pictures, whether serious war coverage, social commentary or homespun Americana.”
Frank’s photographs were black-and-white captures of everyday people doing everyday things. Critics hated “The Americans” calling it overly-critical of America because it passed over the breezy “anything is possible” attitude of the pop culture of the times (“The Americans” was published in 1959) in favor of a more modest and honest portrayal of American life. Frank said that in America it seemed that “everyone was sort of alone more,” and his photographs captured that sense.
Frank had a unique perspective on America; in 1947 he moved from his native Switzerland to the United States and traveled cross-country repeatedly, taking the photographs that would become “The Americans.” And following in the tradition of foreign-born critics eventually embraced by America, Frank is now considered an artist with a true grasp of what it means to be American, as Gefter writes: “Twenty years after “The Americans” was published Gene Thornton wrote in The New York Times that “The Americans” ranks “with Alexis de Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’ and Henry James’s ‘The American Scene’ as one of the definitive statements of what this country is about.””
Gefter writes that there is a distinct sense of loneliness that pervades “The Americans,” a loneliness that came as much from Frank’s own sense of isolation on the road as from his subjects themselves. In the article Frank explains to Gefter how he was drawn to the lonely on the road: ““Setting off on a trip, well, I guess I was attracted — because it’s a more photographic theme — to follow the people that are alone instead of being at picnics or swimming.”
I’m looking forward to seeing this sense of American loneliness mixed with what Gefter describes as “a romantic quest to honor what was true and good about the nation.” It will also be interesting to see the Frank show and how it is interpreted for modern viewers: after all, Robert Frank was a pioneer of the “snapshot aesthetic,” and what is our present-day culture’s obsession with constant and spontaneous photographic documentation if not a bizarre grandchild of that movement in photography?