Robert Frank: ‘The Americans’ Opens at Cantor Arts Center

Robert Frank

Robert Frank once stated that there are too many images and too many cameras in today’s world. The 20th-century photographer commented, “we’re all being watched,” and it becomes sillier and sillier. With the massive output of presented images, that perhaps “all action is meaningless. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life.” He went on to state, “If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful, and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.”

In 1955, Robert Frank set off on a journey across America on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Frank was an outsider looking in at American society. He documented ordinary Americans in their daily lives. He traveled through 48 states, used 767 rolls of film, and shot approximately 27,000 frames. From these impressions, he made more than 1,000 prints. Frank narrowed it down to 83 photographs. What he encapsulated were images that only a foreigner could see. His collection of photographic works was published in 1959, leaving critics with images of the nation that were “starkly at odds with the official optimism of postwar prosperity.”

Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center opens Robert Frank in America from September 10, 2014 through January 5, 2015. The exhibit highlights 130 photographs took primarily from the Cantor Arts Center collection, as well as from public and private collections, and from the photographer himself. The show casts new light on the making of The Americans and displays the 1950s prints as a “coherent body of work.” It artfully brings together related images, and highlights notable subjects of the time.

Director of the Cantor Arts Center, Connie Wolf contests that the collection “has provided the  basis for a fresh look at one of the great achievements of 20th-century photography.”

Robert Frank was born in Zurich, Switzerland to a Jewish family. He grew up during the time when “Hitler’s ideology swept across Europe.” Frank often “felt like an outsider looking in” ever since his family lost their citizenship. In 1947, the photographer reached New York and was soon hired by Harpers Bazaar, However, Frank realized that he disliked fashion photography, and he only lasted in the industry for six months. Over the next several years, Frank sought to be viewed as a photojournalist, but was unsuccessful.

Then, in 1955, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him the liberty of pursuing his work as he saw fit. Over a two-year period across America, Frank witnessed the nation on the precipice. He was fascinated as he watched “race relations on the brink and a counterculture on the rise.” Sarah Greenough, National Gallery’s curator of photography, considers that what he experienced around him, contributed to his personal feelings of separation from society, empowering him “to relate to the ostracized.”

The photographer spent an entire year selecting and sequencing the images, connecting them “thematically, formally, emotionally, and linguistically.” In 1958, he published Les Americains in Paris, and the  English version, The Americans came out a year later. The photographic series delved beneath “the surface of life” in America, in order to expose a society “on the brink of massive social upheaval.”

Robert Frank

During Frank’s photographic years, he photographed detached individuals so that they seemed trapped by “pictorial forces.” The prints portrayed an almost darker side of Americans – plagued by racism and consumption. However, he also touched on the lighter side of the nation – diners, cars, jukeboxes and gas stations. These collective images helped define American icons and have since become exemplary. The outwardly unfettered compositions, often blurred and tilted, became the dominant metaphor for his vision of isolated individuals imprisoned by social circumstances.

His Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey (1955) depicts two spectators looking out windows of a highrise with the American flag blotting out one individual’s face. Several of the images in the exhibit’s collection are prints that Frank did not select for his book, but instead ones that he sold to support his filmmaking career.

Once the book had become a “landmark of photographic history,” Robert Frank had already turned his attention to filmmaking. Both film and video formed a “central aspect” to Frank’s work since the late 1950s. He worked with the American novelist, Jack Kerouac, American poet, Allen Ginsberg and American artist-filmmaker, Alfred Leslie. However, Frank returned to his passion of photography in 1972, working with Polaroids and text. Robert Frank went on to publish The Lines of My Hand, which surveyed his early career, and retrospectives of his photographs was exhibited in Houston. His work has also appeared on the cover of Rolling Stones’ album, Exile on Main Street. In 1996, Robert Frank was awarded Hasselblad Award for his photographic works.

By Dawn Levesque

Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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