Sunday, November 1, 2009

Seeing, The Americans

Bar, Gallup, New Mexico, 1955, printed ca. 1977;
Gelatin silver print 36.9 x 24.2 cm (14 1/2 x 9 1/2 in.)
Purchase, Anonymous Gifts, 1986 (1986.1198.17)
Signed in ink on print, recto LR: "Robert Frank"; inscribed in pencil on print, verso UR: "RF.A. 29"

I was unaware that comparisons had already been drawn between Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Robert Frank’s The Americans, but the relationship was the first thought that came to mind while viewing the powerful suite of 83 photographs currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The photographs document the cross-country road trip the Swiss-born Frank undertook from 1955-1956. At the outset, Frank said, “ What I have in mind, then, is observation and record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.” The exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of their publication.

When assessed aesthetically, the photographs are riveting. Often shot in situations that precluded the formal considerations of focus and composition, they still mange to hold the viewer captive within their moment. Each is titled only with the site and/or location. They are extremely pure. There is no sense of the clandestine nor suggestion of either the arbitrary or the staged. One understands that Frank’s subjects were clearly aware of his presence. Finally, there are no gimmicks. Frank did not rely on special effects, manipulation or cropping as evidenced by the marked contact sheets included in the exhibition.

As a narrative, the suite captures the purposefulness, diversity, and individuality inherent in the American character. It also speaks volumes about the disparity, prejudice and disenfranchisement existing mid-20th century and still today. This remains our birth defect conceived when slavery was sanctioned coexistent with the demands of liberty made plain in the Declaration of Independence. One cannot help but recall the nation’s response to Hurricane Katrina when viewing Frank’s photographs taken in New Orleans. And here we are fifty years after these photos were published to ample criticism and disparagement.

I would encourage anyone living in or travelling to New York to view this exhibition. If you can’t, buy the book. It is a document that should be present in every American’s visual vernacular until we correct our vision and begin to see differently.

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