The Fifties and the Anti-Fifties: Robert Frank's The Americans
Ackland Art Museum
Through Jan. 4
In 1958, Swiss-born Robert Frank published The Americans, and photography has never quite recovered. Frank's passionate and penetrating visual statement taught the world a new way to see and, in the process, obliterated fastidious technical concern for exposure and traditional composition. But even more audaciously, The Americans questioned the entire concept of photography, and, to a lesser degree, art itself—many of the images are significant because of what they don't contain. On the 50th anniversary of the work's seminal publication, one way to summarize its impact is to say that it effectively made it possible for photography to satisfyingly negate itself.
Supported by his mentor Walker Evans, Frank received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to travel the continent and photograph American society in its myriad permutations. Between April 1955 and June 1956, Frank cranked 687 rolls of 35 mm through his Leica. Eighty-three images were selected and published in France in 1958. In the following year, the U.S. edition was introduced with a text by Beat luminary Jack Kerouac. The images, murky in tonality and sometimes haphazard in framing, garnered substantial critical attention—and derision. The editors of Popular Photography panned the work, going so far as to say that it was "one of the most irritating photo books to make the scene."
Those "irritating" photos did more than make the scene—they've become part of our visual lexicon. The Ackland owns 18 prints from the series, and they are currently all on display. Photo-philes should take note: These medium-sized prints date from the late '50s, and the museum's curatorial staff believe they were printed by Frank himself. Assuming the prints were made by Frank, they offer valuable insight into his process and objective. The prints at the Ackland—some slightly discolored by age—are generally "flatter" (meaning the gray tones are less compressed) than subsequent reproductions have been. Seeing the prints, which leads us to suspect that the negatives were over-exposed, helps to illustrate how reckless and radical Frank's approach must have seemed at the time.
All great art is, to a degree, a production of autobiography, and The Americans might be considered among the 20th century's greatest photographic examples of this maxim. We learn as much—no, more—about Frank's inner condition as we do about the subjects he's photographing. Images like "Las Vegas" (1955-1956), which hinges on a massive and apparently pointless neon arrow, convey the profound loneliness and otherness an outsider feels in an increasing mechanized and consumerist mid-century culture. Television was coming into ascendancy, and we can tell by Frank's treatment in "Restaurant—U.S. leaving Columbia, South Carolina" (1955) and "Television studio—Burbank, California" (1956) that he was worried about the integrity of humanity's tethering to reality. Conjured by cathode ray tubes, the disembodied heads that Frank photographed still transmit a McCarthyite dread and must have triggered alarm bells in his skeptical European mind. (Frank, son to a wealthy Jewish family, experienced WWII in relative security in Switzerland, but the proximity of Hitler's Reich must have been a formidable and formative source of anxiety.) Regarding the trajectory of American TV culture, Frank was, of course, right—but could he have imagined the schizophrenic addiction to wireless devices that we see today?
The Americans is riddled with period technology that becomes ominous and otherworldly through the photographer's lens. The ubiquity of the jukebox must have seemed a novelty to the teenage baby boomers, but to Frank, in his photographic obsession, the machine's ever-present glow becomes a sentinel of existential questioning. Similarly, while contemporary viewers will no doubt associate the covered car he photographed in Long Beach with a B-movie flying saucer, there is no denying that the image lingers with sinister subconscious impact. Frank's probing camera was drawn toward America's burgeoning car culture (the first sections of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highway appeared in 1956), and a good deal of The Americans can be seen as a comment on the spiritual vacuum produced by proto-suburbia.
But reducing Frank to an old-world Luddite ignores the breadth, depth and complexity of his highly nuanced take on America's "happy days." While often severe, and filtered through a subjective haze of projection, The Americans also contains an abundance of pointed empathy. Perhaps Frank did succeed in capturing the true essence of the 1950s. Those of us too young to have known the era of alleged optimism can find Frank's vision plausible enough—he never shied away from addressing racial and economic inequality. And the images he created of the elevator attendant's tragic beauty and the coffee shop girl's ambiguous gaze will continue to resonate with the disaffected of all ages.
In the decades following the notoriety of The Americans, Frank has continued to produce photographs and has expanded his interest to include experimental and documentary filmmaking. Also, following a series of personal tragedies, he has become something of a recluse. In a line from his video Home Improvements (1985), included in his 1994 retrospective Moving Out, he apparently summed up his life's creative philosophy:
"I am always looking outside trying to look inside. Trying to tell something that's true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what's out there. And what's out there is always different."
At the arrival of the The Americans' half-centennial, the words seem especially pertinent.
Through Jan. 4, 18 of Frank's original prints are on display at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill. Frank's images can be found through searches on the Web. Next year, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will mount a retrospective of The Americans, which will subsequently travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Visit www.ackland.org or call 966-5736 for more information.