The making and unmaking of Robert Frank's The Americans
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"All original art looks ugly at first," Clement Greenberg wrote in defense of modern art. Implicit in Greenberg's statement is the sense that time would eventually vindicate what was seen as anathema to prevailing tastes. Such has been the fate of The Americans, Robert Frank's once reviled, now iconic photographic poem that traces the warped, smudged, and tattered fabric of our nation. Now 50, Frank's odd little book (initially published in France in 1958 and brought to these shores the following year by Grove Press) of old glories, hardened faces, ghostly jukeboxes, in-between moments, and public rituals that captured the social inequalities and strangeness entrenched in the everyday of postwar America still cuts to the quick.
Frank, in collaboration with curators at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has given his magnum opus something of the CSI treatment in "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans." As its title suggests, "Looking In" offers an expanded view of the original volume's 83 photographs (displayed in their original order, with each of the book's four sections in its own gallery), incorporating contact sheets and other behind-the-scenes artifacts from the Guggenheim Fellowship-funded cross-country road trips Frank made with his wife and two kids in 1956 and '57, as well as selections of Frank's earlier and later photographic projects. But so much context and annotation to what was, even in the strictest sense, a self-contained work, often results in more noise than signal.
Frank pared his final choices from 20,000 frames, ordering the images in such a way to form daisy chains that relay visual puns, common themes, shared details (a decorative star motif or the position of a hand), and stark contrasts among them. A personal favorite occurs in a series of photographs that touch on driving, in which the tarpaulin covering a ride in Long Beach deflates in the next photo into the cloth draped over a car accident victim in rural Arizona. As with all art, the power and pleasure of viewing The Americans comes in discovering these subtle affinities and motifs by oneself. At times the interpretative cues offered by the explanatory texts all but erect a neon sign directing you toward significance. Some interpretive breathing room would've been nice.
Conversely, Frank's conflicted relationship to his most famous work in the decades following its subsequent reappraisal and canonization by the art world when he started to turn his attention to filmmaking is shoehorned into a tantalizing but all too brief section, "Destroying The Americans," at the exhibit's close. (Sarah Greenough's excellent catalog essay of the same title goes into further detail.) It is curious to end a retrospective that largely adds to the hagiography already surrounding Frank's work on such a sour, doubt-filled note. But perhaps it can be read as a warning to those who would be quick to call The Americans merely a reflection of its time. Frank's "sad poem," as Jack Kerouac dubbed it in his introductory text to the American edition, may no longer look as ugly as it once did. But we are still a nation riddled by racism and poverty, worshipful of false prophets and political theater; a nation of gullible consumers, fervent believers, and drifters forever tethered to the horizon. As Frank himself said in response to initial criticism of the book, "It is important to see what is invisible to others perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness."