Thursday, March 29, 2012

Robert Frank, Les Americains and Saul Steinberg...and Emmet Gowin

I was recently paging through the September, 1950, issue of Flair and came across something that will be of interest to fans of photography--or at least to fans of Robert Frank.

Flair was a short-lived magazine founded and edited by Fleur Cowles. Cowles was an editor at Look, married to the publisher, Gardner Cowles of the Cowles media empire, and Flair was of course published by Cowles Media. It was an extravagant affair, and from a design point of view, quite gorgeous. It featured die-cut covers, multiple paper stocks, the occasional gravure-printed page and half-pages trimmed vertically, horizontally and even into quarters. All this sort of stuff is expensive and so precluded it surviving very long and in fact it only lasted 13 issues--January, 1950, to January, 1951. It was art directed by Federico Pallavicini and among contemporary designers, copies of the magazine have become highly-prized and sought-after.

It also featured writers and artists who were well known or later become better known. The September issue for example, featured nine pages of photos by Louis Faurer, including five of street photography in NYC, and a gravure plate of a cityscape by Munckasi.

This particular issue also featured a bound-in booklet by Saul Steinberg, in which he took photos by Faurer and others and drew over them. It was called "The City" and here are some pages from it:

And here's the kicker:

What that reminds me of was the cover of Les Americains, the first edition of Robert Frank's The Americans, which was published in 1958, with a cover by Saul Steinberg.

I don't know how the Steinberg illustration came to be the cover but it appears that it was either an alternate version done at the time he was doing "The City" for Flair or the idea was recycled eight years later. The latter is the more likely and of course the recycling of ideas isn't even remotely an unusual thing in the world of art. As a matter of fact, to quote Jasper Johns on the making of art: "Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it." And I'll add, repeat again and again. Until you've exhausted the idea. Regardless, it's nice to see an idea used in a one-off issue of a magazine--and in the trash by the next month--reappear years later on the cover of a seminal book.

And while we're on the subject of influences and the flow of ideas, here is the cover of Emmet Gowin's first photobook--his 1965 dissertation thesis from Richmond Professional Institute--called Concerning America and Alfred Stieglitz, and Myself.

The cover is in fact a direct reference to Frank's Les Americains, as is the layout and design and overall conception. I've never seen a copy of the Gowin book, and probably won't until Errata Editions does a book-on-books of it, so I'll rely on Sandra Ludig Brooke of the Marquand Library of Art and Archeology at Princeton to tell the tale:

"With the civil rights movement unfolding around him, Gowin found inspiration in the street photography of Robert Frank. In 1963, he traveled to New York to seek Frank's professional advice, so it is no accident that Concerning America echoes--in conception, layout, and imagery--Les Americains, the original, French edition of Frank’s landmark photo book. Gowin's prints, in their subjects, saturated tones, and artful contrasts of light and dark, show a strong debt to Frank.

"The wrapper of Gowin's book mimics the distinctive Saul Steinberg cover for Les Americains. Frank's controversial publication, which like Gowin's featured an amalgam of excerpted texts, was not issued in a U.S. edition until 1959 when it appeared as The Americans with an introduction by Jack Kerouac...

"The title of Gowin's thesis is a witty reference to an iconic 1934 book, America & Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait…, which was a collection of essays published as a tribute to Stieglitz on his seventieth birthday. All the texts in Gowin's book were selected from the Stieglitz volume."

Concerning America and Alfred Stieglitz, and Myself is another one of those feverishly-sought collector's items. Gowin's dissertation requirements included making 100 copies of his thesis and in this case, each copy is made up of 14 original gelatin-silver prints. The last copy sold at auction for just under $60,000.

A copy of Flair would be cheaper, though a full-set of 13 runs about $2,000.

By the way, the cover illustrations are by Gowin and seem to bear the influence of Marc Chagall rather than Saul Steinberg. But that might be one digression too many.

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