Saturday, September 26, 2009

Robert Frank's "The Americans," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sadness seems to trickle through the 83 photographs in his classic 1959 book, “The Americans,” his disturbed and mournful song-of-the-road portrait of a new homeland and the subject of a 50th-anniversary exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Once rejected for its pessimism, now sanctified for its political prescience, the book distills heartache, anger, fear, loneliness and occasional joy into a brew that has changed flavor with time but stayed potent. You may not know exactly what you’re imbibing when you pick up “The Americans” for the first time, or when you visit the Met show, but a few pictures in, and you’re hooked.

Some images you will recognize even if you never knew where they came from: a shot of a woman standing in an apartment window, her face hidden by a windblown American flag; a middle-aged black woman, maybe a nurse, holding a baby with skin so pale it looks extraterrestrial.

Mr. Frank took those pictures in Hoboken, N.J., and Charleston, S.C. The photograph used on the cover of the book’s first American edition was from New Orleans. It’s an exterior shot of a trolley car seen from the side, its passengers seated in the social order that prevailed in a pre-civil-rights, pre-feminist, pre-youth-culture nation.

From left to right we see, one behind the other, a white man, a white woman, a white boy, a white girl, a black man, a black woman. The white woman looks with sharp-eyed suspicion at the camera; the white boy, impassive but curious, sees it too; so does the black man, who seems to be on the verge of tears.

I’m reading feelings in here, but I think Mr. Frank was reading them into his subjects, which is why his pictures, separately and together, feel so personally laden. At this point, in 1955, he was on the first leg of a transcontinental car trip that would last 10 months and take him 10,000 miles. He was still learning the American language, the language of race and class, a stranger in a strange land that was getting more baffling.

How did he come to be there? Born in a German Jewish family in Zurich in 1924, he was interested in picture making early on. He apprenticed with several leading local photographers in his teens; in his early 20s he was doing promising work, examples of which are in the Met show. But he was temperamentally restless and impulsive. He needed to leave home, so he headed for New York.

He was restless there too. He landed a job at Harper’s Bazaar and quickly ditched it. He left for a photography jaunt to Central and South America, came back to New York, got married, had a child, went to France and Spain for a spell, returned to New York again, had another child.

Socially, his impulsiveness worked for him. He was good at introducing himself to people. That’s how he met Edward Steichen, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and how he later met Walker Evans, who hired him as an assistant and more or less arranged for him to get a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955. That gave Mr. Frank enough money to travel the country, photographing as he went, with the goal of producing a book.

He made three separate car trips of different lengths, the first from New York to Detroit, the second from New York to Savannah, Ga. The third trip, in a secondhand Ford Business Coupe, was the big one. It took him, with many stops, through the Deep South and Texas to Los Angeles. There, joined by his family, he took a breather before heading back east alone, through Montana to Chicago, then to New York.

The New Orleans picture came fairly early in this trip. It was a miracle that he got it. He was focused on shooting a parade when he suddenly swung around, and there was the trolley. Many pictures happened that way. He was in the right place at the right time, but he also had the right reflexes, a dancer’s combination of precision and abandon. And he had the right instincts or, maybe, attitude. For some people a camera is armor. For Mr. Frank it was an antenna, a feeling and thinking device.

Once back in New York at the end of his travel year, he carried his instincts and reflexes into the darkroom and onto the editing table. From the many thousands of pictures he had snapped, he made hundreds of contact sheets; the Met has a fascinating selection. And from these he pulled around a thousand working prints, which he tacked to his studio walls and slowly, slowly whittled down to 100, to 95, to 86, to 83.

That final selection forms the bulk of the show “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans,’ ” which was organized by Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and Jeff L. Rosenheim of the Met’s photography department. As in the book, the sequence begins with the Hoboken flag and unfolds in four sections, distinguished by mood and tempo.

Images of flags, cars and jukeboxes set up a light, steady under-beat for recurring character types: socialites and politicians, bikers and retirees, urban cowboys, hot-to-trot teenagers and just plain folks. A starlet in Hollywood strikes a pose; three drag queens vamp on a New York City street. A hard-eyed waitress glares into space; a hotel elevator attendant dreams a pensive dream as people in furs and suits blur past her.

Occasionally figures appear in landscapes, as in an image of an itinerant preacher kneeling, robed in white, beside the Mississippi River. Just as often, landscapes are all but empty. A Montana mining town seen from a window looks blasted and abandoned; a stretch of New Mexican highway, shot from ground-level, road-kill perspective, is a blank line to the horizon until you spot a speck of a car.

A similar road appears in another photograph, though here the car is parked right in front of us, its headlights on. Through the windshield we see dim figures — Mr. Frank’s first wife, Mary, and their two children — bundled together for warmth. Whether they are asleep or sitting in open-eyed exhaustion is hard to say, they are so shadowy, so near but so far away.

Theirs is the concluding image in “The Americans,” and it is true to the spirit of the sequence as a whole. It is not a perfect picture in any conventional way. Its balances are odd; its atmosphere is blurry and grainy, as if with static or dust. Like many of Mr. Frank’s pictures, it isn’t about an event but about an uncertain moment between events, when emotional guards are down, and dark feelings can flow in. In the way a film still does, it seems to call for a larger narrative to make sense. (In 1958 Mr. Frank announced that he was giving up still photography for films, and he made many.)

The ostensibly throwaway style of this and other pictures had a huge influence, from the 1960s forward, on young artists who understood that traditional models of resolution and wholeness, in art as in life, are unstable, if not illusory. That “The Americans” could embody this concept while being a virtuosic feat of formal discipline and psychic endurance only increased its exemplary status, except perhaps to Mr. Frank himself, now 84, whose attitude toward his book has tended to grow more antagonistic with its critical and commercial success.

And how does the “The Americans” come across today? In the nominally post-racial Obama era, its political urgencies feel less immediate than they once did, but also prophetic. Its mournful tenderness, without being sentimental, seems deeper than ever. The days and nights it records are more than a half-century gone. The preacher, the nurse, the woman hidden by the flag, the sharp-eyed woman and the tearful black man on the trolley are, you imagine, gone.

What’s left is a still-strange country and a book of pictures by a foreigner who came to America impulsively, traveled our roads restlessly, and by not fully knowing our language heard it correctly and told us, the way we could not, truths about ourselves.

“Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ ” remains through Jan. 3 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

By Holland Cooper, The New York Times, September 25, 2009

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