Looking in: Robert Frank’s The Americans – A lesson in photography

Original text in French by DAVID GODICHAUD

Translation by IANA DREYER

October 6th, 2009.

One rarely speaks of “draft” when it comes to photography. This is a term generally left to the world of literature. It’s as if one couldn’t cross out images, the sequences were without punctuation, there was no structure to the storyline, no introduction, no epilogue. The final product, be it a book or an exhibition, is simply taken as a given, the result of a random process of creation. Fifty years after Robert Frank’s book The Americans was printed, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is exhibiting more than 83 vintage prints of the book’s pictures. Jeff L. Rosenhein and Sarah Greenough, the exhibition’s curators, decided to focus on showing the photographer’s work-in-progress, revealing how his opus was constructed, and thus to explain the artist’s path to success. A fantastic initiative!

“ The pictures are a necessity: you do them. And then the way you present them and the way you put them up together – it can strengthen the simpleness of the visual series”. Robert Frank.

On entering the first of the four rooms dedicated to the exhibition, the visitor is faced with an imposing contact sheet, and is startled by what he or she is not used to seeing. Among thirty-five other shots, Trolley (New Orleans), one of Frank’s iconic photos, stands out. This photo is set free from the message its author wanted it to tell in the book. It is suddenly linked to a different reality, to another temporality: that of the photographer on travel. There’s a sudden magic, past and present merge into one figure: Robert Frank.

One goes to see this exhibition with the idea of seeing the original shots that make the final beauty of The Americans. Yet during the visit one shouldn’t hesitate to go back to and linger in the first room: there lies the clue to what makes the miracle of this exhibition. That’s where its essence lies, its relevance. This room is where the discourse lies, constructed with earlier photographs that give a glimpse of the photographer’s development, punctuated with letters and texts that reveal the paths his thoughts had taken. They highlight Frank’s points of views on the art of photography and show the angle he had taken to approach a project that was to lead him to travel all over the country.

Then there is this breathtaking mural that makes get the feel for the work of the editor, following upon that of the photographer. Several 8×10 prints, hung in a seeming disorder, at first loose the visitor’s eyes, who doesn’t know where nor how to look. That’s when he or she is made aware of the both subtle and overwhelming task it was to select of 83 pictures out of 27000 shots. That’s the talent of a composer who orders the music as notes on a partition and pins down the melody he wants the world to hear. Robert Frank, has managed just that, after having spent several months watching his pictures grow mature and find arrangements among themselves in a lasting and coherent way, thus creating an argument and giving the right expression to his emotions. It is here the primer of cinema that matters, the primer of life.

It’s with a sort of enlightened bliss that the adept of photography can then plunge into the world of the other three rooms and rediscover The Americans. One starts grasping the reasoning behind the sequencing of the images, and behind the structuring of the different sections of the books. While roaming among the prints and contact sheets, suddenly everything seems simple, self-evident. It’s amusing.  When one looks at the contact sheet – American 20, Guggenheim 534 – one thinks that many would have made the choice of revealing the face of this poor man, rather than hiding it behind the staircase (Rooming house, Bunker Hill, Los Angeles). Yet with this choice, if the image’s composition is less stable, its message is only the stronger. Further on, one delights at the sequencing, among others, of Americans # 33, #34 (Covered car) and #35 (Car accident), while transported to Florida and California. The choice of the particular picture creates a message that suddenly gains a meaning throughout America.

If you haven’t been to see Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, don’t miss out ! It’s one of the most beautiful ongoing photo exhibitions in New York.

Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans

September 22, 2009 – January 3, 2010

Metropolitan Museum of Art  (New York)

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