Sunday, 3 May 2009

Robert Frank: Sad Poems For Sick People

In 2009, fifty years after The Americans was first published in the US, everybody loves Robert Frank. Beat Generation fanatics think he's hip, documentary photographers praise his unflinching honesty and cultural historians regularly cite him as one of the most influential artists of the mid-20th century. In the book, Frank summed up a country on the cusp of change, laying bare some shared truths in his grainy monochrome pictures. Or did he? Another book I've been re-reading this week reminded me quite how selective hindsight can be.
     Published in 1986, Robert Frank - New York to Nova Scotia contains letters to and from Frank, essays by Kerouac and Walker Evans, and various ephemera from the mid-1950s. There are a few of photographs too; some rare, some classics, like 1956's Political Rally, Chicago, pictured right.
     However, one of the most fascinating parts of the book is the various contemporary reactions to The Americans. A spread titled "An Off-Beat View Of The U.S.A" reprints an article from the May 1960 issue of Popular Photography magazine, in which their many editors offer their opinions on Frank's new book. Here are a few of my favourites...

Les Barry: "...Frank's book actually explores a very limited aspect of life in the United States, and it is the least attractive aspect, at that. It's doubtful that he really thinks all Americans are simple beer-drinking, jukebox-playing, pompous, selfish, intolerant, money-worshipping, flag-waving, sacrilegious, insensitive folks."

Bruce Downes: "Frank is sensitive, but apparently he is without love. There is no pity in his images. They are images of hate and hopelessness, of desolation and pre-occupation with death. They are images of an America seen by a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption. ... The book seems to me a mean use to put a camera to."

John Durniak: "It is obvious that Mr. Frank had 1934 eyes and blinders on when shooting. The publishers have left a word out of the title. It should read: Some Americans. That is exactly what Frank has done, photographed some Americans. But has he photographed what these people are really like? His pictures are unconvincing. ... Frank possibly has done 5 percent of the job, if that."

James M. Zanutto: "Robert Frank's book is described in the introduction by Jack Kerouac as a "sad poem." A sad poem for sick people might be more accurate. ... Yet all photographers are encouraged to make personal statements with their pictures. In the case of Robert Frank, one wonders if his pictures contribute to our knowledge of anything other than the personality of Robert Frank."

The Americans remains a stunning body of work, but it is interesting to hear how sceptical some of these comments were. Affronted by the arrogance of the Swiss outsider and unaware of the wholesale changes that the 1960s would bring, the pivotal nature of the times and the defining qualities of Frank's book weren't immediately apparent. I wonder what those same critics might have thought of The Americans by, say, 1970 or 1980?
     I should point out that the harshness of some of the comments from Popular Photography were tempered in their wider context and other editors were entirely positive, praising the tongue-in-cheek subtlety of Frank's title and his "lovely and evocative" images. Nevertheless, it's a fresh perspective in this anniversary year, something that the contrary and controversial photographer would surely welcome.

Parade - Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955

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