Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Robert Frank and The Americans

In honor of the opening of the Robert Frank's "Looking In" exhibit, September 22, at the Met, NYC, here's a spread of "Never-Before-Seen" photos from The Americans.

(The text of the intro)

The Americans Revisited

In the post- "Family of Man" euphoria of the late 1950s, when the photographer was celebrated as the empathic bearer of brotherly love, the publication of Robert Frank's The Americans seemed an ungrateful gesture, at best. In the chronicle of his now legendary cross-country journey of 1955-56, the Swiss-born photographer brought back images of an automobile-obsessed populace, some bored by a surfeit of abundance, others disappointed by the unrelieved burden of poverty, and all uncomfortable in their social, economic and racial relationships.

Photographing in large cities and nondescript places in between, Frank shattered a precious, cosmetic fantasy of a post-war America years before her promising young novelists were sober enough to confront it. The American dream was not to be seen through Frank's viewfinder. In his intentional disregard for conventional pictorial composition, lighting, sharp focus and fine print quality, Frank's critics found little more than willful distortion by a talented photographer acting as if he did not know how to operate a camera.

But Frank withstood his critics and denied any a priori condemnation of his adopted country. "I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference," he wrote in 1958 just before the publication of Les Américains in Paris. "Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others–perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness." For his friend, Jack Kerouac, it was the sadness that made Frank's pictures the perfect embodiment of the "potry" of the Beat Generation. "With that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand," wrote Kerouac, "he sucked a sad poem right out of America."

Two decades, several wars and countless photographic images later, we have seen sadder pictures. The content of Frank's imagery now appears more expected than shocking. Today it is his technical indiscretions–unacceptable in the fifties–that endear him to an emerging generation of modernists continuously striving to define the expanding frontiers of the medium. The photographs seen here, accompanied by Jack Kerouac's ramblings from On The Road, are from that original odyssey but never have been published before. They will be exhibited at Venice this month. –Nancy Stevens

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