Viewing Robert Frank’s photography collection The Americans is like taking a road trip through 1950s America, which, appropriately enough, was how the images were taken. Also appropriately, Jack Keroac wrote the introduction to the first published collection. This should be your first sign that these crisp black and white photos felt more counter-culture then than they do today. Even so, it’s hard to believe that there was a general outcry against Frank when this work was published, leading to charges of him being “anti-American.”
Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans , on view at the Met through January 3,2010, seems like Americana pure and simple. There are waitresses in diners, people walking down the street, and children playing at town fairs. The focus is on everyday life. Frank’s people do not smile at the camera though. If they realize there photograph is being taken, they are usually outraged. They are unguarded and so, like the waitress above, we learn about a part of their personality they might hide.
In that sense, Frank’s photographs show a side of American life that wasn’t often depicted. As in this photo of a political rally, below, Frank’s unusual emphasis on the speaker rather than the crowd creates a disquieting alternate view of what is happening.
I really enjoyed walking through this exhibition following Frank’s original ordering of the photographs. They were arranged to compliment or differentiate from the ones around it, and somehow walking through becomes a cinematic process just shy of narrative-building. These photographs appeared especially classic and traditional after seeing New Photography 2009 at MoMA and, in fact, Surface Tensions, a show across the hall from the Robert Frank exhibition at the Met that explores contemporary photography. I heard a docent leading a tour through Surface Tensions say that “for artists today, it was no longer good enough to produce a beautiful 8 by 10 print anymore.”
I’m not so sure.