Robert Frank in America

Review

Robert Frank in America

By Danica Willard Sachs December 18, 2014

Few landmarks in photographic history loom as large as Robert Frank’s The Americans. This seminal book has been so widely exhibited, riffed on, and dissected, it would be easy to assume that the Cantor Arts Center’s current exhibition, Robert Frank in America, does little to expand on the narrative surrounding this body of work. Instead, the exhibition, curated by Peter Galassi, surprises with a host of unfamiliar photographs drawn from the Cantor’s collection paired with some favorites from the original series. The result is a survey that reveals how The Americans was distilled from hundreds of equally captivating photographs to a neat eighty-three.

Swiss photographer Frank was most productive between 1955 and 1956, when a Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to travel across the country. Aside from the photographs that eventually became part of The Americans, the bulk of Frank’s work from this time has been largely unseen. The Cantor’s exhibition flushes out this period. As Galassi writes in the accompanying catalog, “In all of Frank’s American work there are no natural wonders, no amber waves of grain, no mighty ports, no grand public monuments, no cozy towns or bright lights of Broadway.”1 Instead, Frank focused on politics, race, religion, Hollywood, and cars—themes that organize the Cantor’s exhibition—creating compositions that highlight the quirks and eccentricities of American culture.

A section near the midpoint of the show particularly resonates: a grouping of photographs taken in the South touching on racial tensions. Frank’s interest in the racial politics of the United States is a theme throughout the show and is exemplified in Main Street–Savannah, Georgia (1955), a street scene of a group of pedestrians waiting to cross an intersection. Here, a white woman with her arms crossed stands next to a solitary black man. Retail signs dominate the top third of the photograph and suggest a commercial world that the black man cannot access. Later, in the section devoted to the South, Frank zooms in on the issue in photographs like Beaufort, South Carolina (1955) and Detroit (1955). Beaufort, South Carolina depicts a black family proudly posed around their car, the mother and father figures perched on the hood, defiantly regarding the photographer. Detroit is characteristic of Frank’s striking portraits: a close-up shot of a black woman staring into the camera as she is about to eat something in her hand, the shape of her grasp echoed in the white woman adjacent, who holds a cigarette to her lips, her thumb pressing into her cheek. Although physically close, the two women do not appear to engage with each other. Through revealing details, Frank charts the uneasy political geography of a vast country on the verge of change.

One of the most illuminating moments of the exhibition happens not on the walls of the gallery, but in a vitrine near the end of the exhibition. Inside, several different print versions of The Americans are laid out next to each other: the first edition, published by Editions Delpire in Paris in 1958, with photographic plates printed in photogravure; a 1969 edition published by Grossman Publishers in New York, with plates printed in duotone offset lithography; and the 2008 reissue by Steidl, with plates printed in tritone offset lithography. As the label explains, the 1969 edition differs from the earliest and most recent versions because it was printed through an experimental duotone process called Stonetone. This technique resulted in drab images with little of the nuanced contrast and print quality that viewers can see on the walls in the gallery around them. Of the three editions, the 1969 edition is probably the most familiar to viewers, as it was the main version in circulation until the Steidl reissue. Even though the print quality is inferior, Frank’s photographs are just as compelling, a testament to the power of his compositions.

Despite the markers throughout the exhibition of an era sixty years prior—registered in the photographs as long-retired cars, politicians, and Hollywood stars—Frank’s work has an unexpected prescience. Through his unflinching view of 1950s America we see our present, full of disparity and contradiction.

Robert Frank in America is on view at Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, in Stanford, through January 5, 2015.

Notes

  1. Peter Galassi, Robert Frank in America (Göttingen: Steidl, 2014), 25.

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