Editors' pick

Looking In: Robert Frank's "The Americans"

Photography
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Editorial Review

American Stories, Told Through a Lens

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Jan. 23, 2009

"L ooking In: Robert Frank's 'The Americans' " feels like a party. Long, lavish and loving -- but never loud -- the National Gallery of Art exhibition celebrates the 50th birthday of a small, quiet thing: a book.

First published in 1958 in France and a year later in the United States, "The Americans" consists of 83 black-and-white photographs that together form the Swiss-born artist's portrait of his adopted home. Boiled down from some 27,000 frames Frank shot over the course of several trips across the nation between 1955 and 1957, the collection of images takes a pungent, poignant and at times critical look at our country. A country polarized in many ways, racially and otherwise. A country obsessed with celebrity, cars and the myths of our cowboy past. A country distrustful of outsiders. A country in transition.

Kind of like now, come to think of it.

The show consists of four parts. The first deals with Frank's career leading up to the book, still considered the 84-year-old artist's masterpiece. It describes the building anger he felt at not being able to crack Life magazine as a photographer (his stuff was always too personal, too dark for the mainstream). The second section describes the groundwork for "The Americans": The Guggenheim Foundation grants that paid for his trips and the ruthless editing behind the final selection of images. One entire wall is covered, almost floor to ceiling, with tattered work prints, showing how Frank culled the outtakes. Overkill for the average viewer? Probably. But porn for lovers of art photography. The final two sections showcase the 83 pictures from the finished book and include an epilogue that looks at Frank's post-"Americans" career as a photographer and avant-garde filmmaker.

In the hoopla of the show, it's possible to lose sight of one thing. A book is not an exhibition that you hold in your lap. It's a personal thing -- one might even say a relationship -- that you experience one on one, page by page, intimately.

That was how Frank approached "The Americans." Idiosyncratically. Passionately, but without sentimentality. The photographs at the center of the National Gallery's "Looking In" aren't examples of technical virtuosity. Some are blurred, with an off-kilter composition. But they are all sharply observed scenes and deserve a close look. Here are five of them, and how the stories they tell -- or the moods they suggest -- evoke Frank's larger, poetic themes.

"Trolley -- New Orleans, 1955"

It's probably the book's most famous photograph. The picture of a segregated trolley car in the deep South (whites up front, blacks in the back, one of whom looks almost pleadingly back at us) appears on the cover of "The Americans."

It was shot just a few days after Frank himself was stopped by the police in McGehee, Ark., fingerprinted and interrogated for several hours. His crime? Being a shabbily dressed Jew driving a car full of cameras with New York tags and having a foreign-sounding name. The experience would forever change him, sharpening his eye for those on, or outside, the margins of society.

"Movie premiere -- Hollywood, 1955"

Frank often liked to photograph people from behind their backs or off to the side. It creates a sense of detachment, rather than connection. But here he shoots Kim Novak, at the premiere of "The Man With the Golden Arm," head-on.

The thing is, the glamorously dressed, if out-of-focus, actress is not the subject of the picture. Rather, it's the faces of the velvet-rope gawkers in the background. Frank looks past what everyone is looking at, casting his gaze on the lookers themselves.

"Candy store -- New York City, 1955"

Along with cars, cemeteries, cowboys, lunch counters, socialites, politicians and the American flag, jukeboxes make frequent appearances in "The Americans." There are four of them, including this glowing and gaudy altar around which a gaggle of teens congregates.

Frank was a big fan of American music, especially jazz and blues, but his attitude toward this icon of '50s pop culture is something other than reverence. There's a reason Beat author Jack Kerouac, in his introduction to Frank's book, wrote, "After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin." According to curator Sarah Greenough, that ineffable melancholy, so common to Frank's work, isn't the result of something you see, but rather feel. It's the tension, she says, between "sound and silence."

"Store window -- Washington, D.C., 1957"

By the summer of 1956, Frank was p retty much done shooting pictures for "The Americans." But he worried that he didn't have enough pictures of politicians, whose demagoguery and failed promise were a recurring theme. In January 1957, he made another short trip, from his home in New York to the District, where the city was preparing for the second inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It's there that Frank found this ever-so-subtly-jaundiced still life: a poster of the leader of the free world . . . next to an empty suit.

"U.S. 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas, 1955"

Picture after picture in "The Americans" illustrates our obsession with cars and the allure and danger of the open road; one shows the blanket-covered victim of a car accident.

In this shot, which appears on the last page of the book, Frank stands outside his car, parked by the side of the road, as his wife, Mary, cradles their young children, Pablo and Andrea, in the front seat. On the one hand, the unseen artist is the consummate outsider. Frank famously said that he was "always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to tell something that's true."

And yet. While "The Americans" explicitly avoids any direct consideration of the immigrant experience, this picture's subtext tells a different story. By closing the book with it, isn't the Swiss immigrant, who had come to this country 10 years earlier, saying that he has become an American himself?