The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert Frank’s photographs captured the bleak reality we’re still living in today

“Parade — Hoboken, New Jersey,” 1955, from Robert Frank’s book “The Americans” (Copyright Robert Frank, from “The Americans”/National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Frank Collection, Robert B. Menschel Fund, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art)

If you live with a photograph long enough, perhaps one taken by an older family member or an image that has circulated in history books, it can come to feel like one of your own memories. It may seem that you remember it from television, even though the event took place before you were born, or that you were there in that room full of Naugahyde and red shag carpet, even though that particular Christmas antedated your arrival on this planet by a decade or more.

It’s unlikely that any of the photographs from Robert Frank’s epochal book “The Americans” have seeped into anyone’s memory in that way. They are as iconic as any images made in the past century, and they created shock waves when they appeared in 1958. Many of them are now as familiar as any picture that has ever circulated in advertising, on the airwaves or in digital form, but who wants to claim them? Who wants to remember this particular America?

Robert Frank, the Swiss-born photographer who reshaped the medium of 20th-century documentary imagery, died Monday at 94, 60 years after the American publication of his most famous book. Looking once again through this dispassionate but unsettling survey of mid-century American consumerism, displacement and alienation — made during a two-year road trip across the country — will send shivers down your spine.

In St. Helena, S.C., Frank took photographs of African American men attending a funeral. One of them shows a cluster of mourners passing an open casket, some glancing nervously at the shrunken face of the older man laid out in the ornate box, others turning away.

This was the same year that white men in Mississippi beat, mutilated and shot 14-year-old Emmett Till before tossing his body in the Tallahatchie River. If the men in Frank’s image avoid looking at this perfectly presented corpse of an older man, what kind of courage would it have taken to look at Emmet Till’s shattered body in the casket where his mother placed him for a public viewing in Chicago?

Looking away is easy. Frank’s work demanded that we look again, and again, which was his explicit goal as a photographer: “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice,” he said. We read a line of poetry twice not just because it was obscure the first time but because something in that obscurity flashed the possibility of deeper meaning. If you get nothing from an image the first time, you move on to the next one. With Frank’s work, there is constant accumulation of meaning, from a first inchoate disturbance of the mind to an ever-enlarged sense of what he has managed to capture.

“The Americans” wasn’t initially successful. It was published first in France, in 1958, and even before it began circulating in America in early 1960, when the Cold War looked bleak, critics were excoriating. “Utterly Misleading! A Degradation of a Nation!” wrote photographer and critic Minor White. Others pointed with suspicion to Frank’s background: He was Jewish and had emigrated to United States after World War II. He was an outsider, and of course no outsider is allowed to criticize this country, a prejudice newly vital and relevant to American political life. (On his extended road trip to make the book, he was arrested and subjected to anti-Semitic abuse, and invited at least once to leave town in a hurry.)

But the book was ultimately acclaimed as one of the most important photographic projects of the 20th century, a radical personalization of the documentary impulse into something haunted, bleakly poetic and daringly unsentimental. It was successful on a scale that bewildered and eventually beleaguered Frank, who had made brilliant and substantial photographs long before “The Americans” and continued as a vital photographer and filmmaker for decades after.

Frank couldn’t escape “The Americans” because it was America, indissolubly part of how we think about our country. It is full of all the essential images: the tattered stars-and-stripes fluttering in a summer wind, lanky men in cowboy hats, political hucksters bloviating to the masses, diners, jukeboxes and barbershops, religious zealots, cars and car accidents, and the open road disappearing to a point on the far horizon. Unlike earlier photographers, who had used the technical polish of fashion and magazine work to shape, frame and mythologize their subjects, Frank seemed to capture them in an almost haphazard way, often in the unflattering glare of artificial light.

He didn’t work to befriend the people he photographed, so even though they emerge as fully human, they are rarely ingratiating, or putting on a performance. His status as an outsider may have sharpened his eye, but there’s a sense in which almost everyone in “The Americans” is an outsider, an other to the other. We are a wary family, familiar but suspicious, and even the rich twits in their top hats, jewelry and furs look a little shabby.

The increasing enlargement of meaning in Frank’s magnum opus continues even now, as the America he uncovered decades ago becomes more and more the America from which we cannot escape today. One image, in particular, waxes with meaning even as its subject — a man playing a tuba at a 1956 political rally — seems increasingly remote from contemporary experience. We can’t see his face, which is entirely obscured by the bell of the instrument. Above him are the familiar stars and stripes. He is standing next to a wall, with only the arms of his fellow musicians in the band visible. Frank had made a similar photograph in 1952, in Spain, capturing a man with his face partially obscured by the bell of a brass instrument. But the image from “The Americans” surpasses that in perfection.

The bell looks like a giant funnel or aperture, into which we might sink our inexhaustible curiosity about this fleeting moment in time. But the anonymous musician becomes our essential Everyman, the perfectly representative American, lost in the patriotic music blaring from the great brass orifice. He is blinded by comforting, inspiriting harmonies, a forceful but unseeing disturbance of the peace. Throughout “The Americans,” almost no one seems to be talking to each other. If that is the definition of what it means to be an American, the tuba player is the perfect citizen.

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