Travels with Robert Frank
Back in June I found myself at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to view the Robert Frank exhibition; Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. The exhibition is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of that seminal photo book. A generation of photographers were forever changed by that book. I must admit I spent a number of hours looking at the images, reading his Guggenheim application and looking at the various incarnations of the book. But the one thing that bowled me over was being able to see the contact sheets. OMG!(as my daughter would say) I can see what Robert Frank was doing and thinking while photographing. His attention would shift from here to there and back again. I spent an hour squinting through the cases trying to make out the images on the contact sheet. It was glorious.
There is an iconic image by Frank of a trolley car in New Orleans seen from the side. Out of the windows is a perfect slice of the American racial hierarchy; a white man, a white woman, white children, a black man (who seems to be beseeching the photographer), a black woman. I often wondered how he came to make this image. How he must have searched it out, looking and thinking and pursuing. Then I see the contact sheet. There he is shooting some sort of demonstration on the street and then he turns around and sees the trolley car, takes 1 picture, and then turns around and continues shooting the demonstration. I think his inner psyche took over at that point and he did not know what he had until he saw it on the contact sheet. Or maybe he really is a genius and recognized immediately what he had, saw immediately it was something he was searching for and took 1 snap and knew that was all he needed!
Speaking of inner selves. I never saw the book as an indictment of American Society as much as it is a portrait of a pissed off, disgruntled immigrant. This is America as seen through the eyes of someone who was harassed as he travelled the roads by cops and other officials, distrusted because he had a funny accent, a photographer kept off the pages of that quintessential American magazine, Life.
Last week I was able to see the same exhibition in New York at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. While it was the same material being presented the Met display seemed cramped and a little claustrophobic. The same exhibitions seemed sprawling in San Francisco. But it is still very much worth seeing and experiencing. Get the hardcover book also with the full set of contact sheets printed inside. Amazing!