Photography, goes one clear-eyed definition, is a record fixed on silver of the light waves reflected by or radiating from objects. The human eye, like the camera, can collect these rays, but it fixes them only in memory.
Photography has advanced by now to the technological point where it occupies and “eyewitnesses” its own reality. A pre-set camera can gather images while orbiting the Earth via satellite, or it can snap your mug shot as you write a check for staples at the supermarket--no human finger on the trigger, no call and response of “Say cheese.”
The scarcely ambiguous footage of the Rodney King beating to the contrary, such images constitute dead-on accounts of an event such as a crime, or a relative close-up of a place as trackless to the naked eye as deep space. The “information” obtained by such means is real and reliable, part and parcel of the process of comprehending “truth.”
Still, the camera is merely a tool, capable of no more than mechanical honesty. The individual photographer must supply the aesthetic and make any attempt to distinguish between a random, meaningless moment and the rare moment of reality revealed, existence cast in a new light.
Many of the spate of “art photography” books available in overpriced editions these days seem to be trying to get away with art, rather than delivering it. Shutter-buggery lines bookstore shelves, alternating between the illusory prettiness of nature photography and the celebrity-worshiping snapshots of the haute paparazzi, perhaps best typified by Vanity Fair’s Annie Liebovitz. To anyone who has spent time looking at photography, Liebovitz’s flashy studies of the momentarily famous are, in essence, stunts. Pop technicians of this caliber have no guiding intentions, no aesthetic stake beyond the hope for a smooth shoot, the haute -er the better.
Photographic work of a wholly different and higher order is represented in Robert Frank’s knife-edged master-piece, “The Americans,” now available again after a shamefully long period out of print. The volume was first published in Paris in 1958, then in America by Grove Press in 1959. Frank, a Swiss-German emigre, studied with Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris before settling in New York in 1947. His early images of street life--dark, intense, often disturbing--established him as a premier talent in a photographic lineage that includes Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith, Weegee and Dorothea Lange. Such was the power of “The Americans” that Frank in turn influenced a whole school of younger documentary photographers--Larry Clark, Bruce Davidson, Garry Winogrand, and Danny Lyon, to name but a few.
Lyon recalled in a Times interview in 1992: "(Frank) played a huge role in liberating American photography. The horizons are cockeyed in his images, a guy’s head is behind a tree, part of the picture is blurred--he blew photography wide open and he’s been a tremendous influence on countless artists, including me. Eventually I had to get away from Robert because he was too strong a force to be around.”
You can get a pungent sense of Frank’s youthful life and force in Patricia Bosworth’s well-researched “Diane Arbus: A Biography” (Knopf, 1984). Frank and his sculptor wife Mary lived in a grungy loft with their two wild children while he eked out a bare existence shooting fashion spreads and photojournalism at $50 a throw for Fortune, Life and Harper’s Bazaar. The Franks, known as a “pagan couple,” were part of a loose-knit arts community that encompassed old-style Greenwich Village bohemia, the Abstract Expressionists and the Beats. In the lockstep mid-1950s, when the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was our national symbol, Frank personified the dissident artist, and his stark, subversive imagery constituted a form of fugitive expression akin to samizdat. Just as you had to “dig” to understand bop, you had to “have eyes” to dig Frank.
In 1955, traveling with Jack Kerouac, Frank crisscrossed the United States on an assignment for Life, but his hard-edged roadside pictures were rejected because “they looked too much like Russia.” Then in 1956, sponsored by the patrician Walker Evans, Frank won a Guggenheim and spent the following year driving around the country in a clunker car with his family in tow. The entourage must have resembled a hip version of the Joads. In Arkansas, Frank was arrested for possessing a suspicious accent, a stubbly beard and New York plates. (Say cheese, indeed.)
All the same, he kept shooting photos of highways and windows, flags and jukeboxes, crosses and blaring TV sets and rural death--recurring motifs that reflected the juiceless complacency of the Eisenhower-McCarthy era and its undercurrent of emptiness for those who dwelt outside the hallowed System and who perhaps once in a while entertained “un-American” thoughts. “I enlarged all the pictures I liked,” Frank recalled later, “maybe two hundred of them. . . . Then I put them together in three sections and I started each section with the American flag and each section with the American flag and each section with no people and then people.”
And what people Frank’s somber eye picked out to show us that there was an emerging subterranean nation taking shape in the shadows and unmapped corners of the official one. In “Newburgh, New York” and “Indianapolis,” Frank framed shots of leather-clad biker gang members, fixing them in a Dantesque suspension between ordinary life and a new kind of life without ordinary boundaries. Prowling through the era’s metaphoric lonely crowd, he singled out cowboys, young stud hustlers, a soldier and his whore, a Southwestern Indian bending over a Las Vegas jukebox--mostly solitaries and outcasts. Respect and sympathy are implicit in Frank’s selection of images, and each shot has a specific sense of character, location and time that puts the viewer in the heart of the moment that the photograph records. Frank could make a grab-shot composition do a prodigious amount of work, as in “Rooming House--Bunker Hill, Los Angeles” and “Mississippi River, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.” The first shows an elderly pensioner obscured by a staircase in a columned slum, and the second a religious pilgrim kneeling at prayer on the Mississippi’s shore. Both shots function at the same time on symbolic and stabbingly literal levels. Both are chilly in spirit and yet moving. A tacit narrative carries the eye relentlessly forward, like scenes from a road movie.
Coincidental with the reappearance of “The Americans,” let me cite another neglected work--W.T. Lhamon Jr.'s groundbreaking critical study called “Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s” (Smithsonian Institution Press: 1990). In it, the author gives pride of place to Frank as one of the key aesthetic innovators of the decade, along with Jack Kerouac, Thomas Pynchon, Little Richard, Ornette Coleman, Ralph Ellison, Allen Ginsberg, Jackson Pollock and Ludwig Wittgenstein. “The quality uniting so many of these (artists’) apparently disparate and subsequently important works is that they were born fighting the forces ignoring and suppressing them,” Lhamon writes. “And most important: insofar as art can win anything, this insurgent culture won.”
If I have any cavil with Lhamon’s rigorous and persuasive argument, it’s that he all but ignores the shaping impact of the noir literary and cinematic culture that permeated the 1940s and ‘50s. Frank, for example, like most artists his age, was steeped to the bone in noir’s bleak expressionist conventions, and many of the 83 black-and-white compositions that make up “The Americans” might have been illustrations for a Geoffrey Homes tough-guy novel or outtakes from a Robert Siodmak production.
Frank published one other significant collection--"The Lines of My Hand” in 1972--but it was already a valedictory of sorts. The book includes his final 1958 photo essay called “Bus Series"--10 abruptly cropped and oddly hellish pictures taken on a bus traversing Manhattan’s 42nd Street. Afterward, telling friends he didn’t want to repeat himself, he turned to the making of documentary films. Frank’s screen works include the Beat improvisation “Pull My Daisy” (1959), featuring Kerouac and Ginsberg and the notoriously raunchy film about a 1972 Rolling Stones tour. Sadly, these and other Frank documentaries are all “underground” movies that essentially can’t be seen anywhere.
In “The Americans,” Frank went searching for America’s soul and found avatars of Desolation Row, prophetic images of the counterculture before there officially was such a thing. He influenced, I am tempted to say, the best minds of my generation--not only other photographers, but musicians, poets, painters scholars, and journalists, including me. With his outsider’s eye and his human finger on the trigger, Frank gave us clues about who to watch, what to see, and a way to see it. In shots like quick incisions, he showed a society where, for the first time, anything could happen. Much like De Tocqueville a century before him, he charted a hidden America where mysteries abound and apocalyptic truth--or ragged beauty--always hides just around the next hairpin curve. Thirty-five years after its first appearance, “The Americans” is both an enduring testament to Frank’s artistic purity and a towering artifact of its time.
The new Scalo edition--incorporating Kerouac’s loopily endearing 1959 introduction--is handsome and well designed. Having the book at hand again is like welcoming an old friend back to the fold. Over the decades, I must have owned four or five copies of the original Grove Press edition, the last one vanishing down the road with a departing girlfriend several incarnations ago.
Let the sainted Kerouac have the final word in his trademark fractured poesy: “The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures! . . .
“Anybody doesnt like these pitchers don’t like potry, see? Anybody dont like potry go home see. . . .
“To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.”