Goldsmiths Curatorial Critique

Robert Frank – “The Americans”

Posted in Reviews by caryncoleman on February 28, 2009


7808164_p2copyRarely is it that flipping through a book is a more rewarding experience than seeing that art in person. However this is exactly what happens with Robert Frank’s book “The Americans” versus the 50th anniversary exhibition at the National Gallery.

I first came into contact with this book nearly a decade ago while researching supplemental material for an Ed Ruscha retrospective at the MCA in Chicago. What I remember most was that it was damn hard to find. In fact, getting the book proved so difficult I believe we ultimately wound up borrowing it from Ruscha’s own personal library. Fortunately with its re-issue in 2008 this is no longer the case. Now I am able to conduct my own inspection – with the turn of each page my nose nearly touches the paper as I examine Frank’s careful consideration in image selection, cropping, order, the vibrant contrast of the whites, black, and grays. And I realize how this experience – with the book acting as object – is so much more intimate and personal than standing in a gallery room full of drifters.

Originally published in 1958, “The Americans” features photographs taken by Robert Frank circa 1954-55 during his travels throughout the United States as part of the prestegious Guggenheim Fellowship. In this act, Frank is quintessentially American. This need to explore and be free manifested in the “road trip” seems to be part of the genetic make-up of most Americans; from the first explorers centuries ago to the rush to the west in the late 1800s to rebellious kids of today. Frank embraces this and its perhaps why we, as Americans, can relate to it so thoroughly. Certainly the images are from an era many of us didn’t experience first hand and yet they are defining universal moments – funerals, the loneliness of the road, isolation amongst others, political events, social change, every day life. They are a part of our communal history. 

While these pictures are photo-journalistic in their execution, Frank’s ability as an artist to assemble imagery into an almost narrative dialogue is subtley sharp. For instance, there is a string of five brilliant photographs (in the book images are on the right page, text only on the left page) dealing with car travel. It begins with the close detail of two men driving in “U.S 91 leaving Blackfoot, Idaho” that then leads us to consider the contrasting staticness of older folks and fast-pace of younger life surrounding them in “St. Petersburg, Florida.” Frank now delivers the most power image succession in the book (see images at the top of the post). “Covered car – Long Beach, California” depicts a large car, covered with a tarp, as palm trees and a stoic concrete building hold strong in the background. Turn the page to “Car accident – U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona” where four onlookers stand over a covered dead body. In both, the covering acts as a protective shield of both the killer and its victim. Ending with an image of the open road at nighttime in “U.S. 285, New Mexico” we are again reminded that we are alone, traveling through life with a sense of adventure. 

As with other similar conceptual arrangements within “The American,” the images taken are from different cities in entirely different circumstances and yet they are steadfastly universal in their experience. Perhaps this is what we can best take away from “The Americans,” whether viewed as photographic prints or as a catalogue collection, that we are not all that different after all.

Robert Frank “The Americans” exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, January 18–April 26, 2009; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 16–August 23, 2009; Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 22–December 27, 2009


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