ROBERT FRANK 1924-2019

Swiss-born Robert Frank, who died in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, on September 9th, 2019, is yet another distinguished example of an immigrant artist who made America the site of unexampled discoveries, as well as a place to consider for social and cultural reasons. Many American photographers try to catch the spirit of our nation, whose undercurrents, always complex and often troubling, yield to highly interesting, but also sometimes bizarre displays of visual interest. Frank might be called a counterculture artist, for there is deep in his images a sense of alterity and unease--qualities that show him considering the myths of America with both a magnifying glass and a mirror--the former to study our quirks and quicksand conservatism; the latter to reflect the deep-seated complexities of a culture devoted to the vagaries of cash and materialism. Even if only little can be done to address our problems, Frank managed to show them in all their lyric dysfunction. In his iconic book The Americans, published in 1958, Frank published images of America’s many states of mind, ranging from subway studies to a shoeshine stand stuck in a men’s bathroom, surrounded by urinals, to a billowing flag on a brick wall of a building, separating two windows with aging women within.

 

These images, not necessarily pretty, demonstrate Frank’s long-term interest in the consequences of a social and cultural democracy both strengthened and weakened by a libertarian economic system. In the end, his point of view in regard to America seems to have been affectionate--he did not return to Europe to live after coming here early, in 1947, after staying in Switzerland during the Second World War to escape the Nazis. But, despite his commitment to the United States, his view of his adopted country was hardly sanguine--there is a darkness that pervades The Americans and his other studies of American culture that is inherent to its prejudicial violence and, it may be said, its imperial drive. It is very, very hard to demonstrate how these larger aspects of America’s government, economy, and culture impact on the idiosyncrasies of our life, especially in the Fifties, before alternative culture and forward-looking politics influenced the way we conduct ourselves. In a way, then, Frank’s work was many things--documentary, esthetic, political, social, and, not least, critical. He was as much a journalist as he was an artist, but in his case, the two vocations merged, in such a way as to permanently address the psychic wounds and survivor mechanisms of an America facing the dawn of major change.

 

Given the harsh undercurrents of our culture, which Frank read so well and so realistically, we may not always like what we see. But it is impossible to say that Frank’s point of view was only critical; clearly, he possessed a deep-seated affection for our diversity, our cultural pluralism, and perhaps even the rituals of patriotism that were not only a tribute to the land and the people (at the same time, his work must be seen as a critical interpretation of our insistence on a social conservatism that from early on in the twentieth century has seemed rigid and outmoded). Because of our immense power and wealth, criticism of convention can easily get lost among or become softened by the objects money can buy. But this does not always happen. Indeed, in Frank’s case, his vision was subtle and indirect--he refused to openly condemn the culture that took him in, preferring instead to suggest our problems in a private, personal manner. It is always true that our lives reflect the larger issues facing us, and Frank recorded this insight with extreme veracity and exquisite detail. His work, neither art nor documentary, sets forth a vision of ourselves in a way that does justice to both our country’s beauty and its darker impulses.

 

A few of Frank’s images will demonstrate his social methods in photography. In one taken from The Americans, a middle-aged black woman in a white dress is holding a white baby outdoors; the infant looks away from the viewer, off to the left side of the picture, while the woman is standing in profile, her left side exposed to us against the wall. It is an instance of caring, but inevitably the problem of race, active in American history now just as it was many years ago, comes to the fore as well. In another photo, five gas-dispensers, clearly from decades past, are forlornly arranged with the tall sign saying “Save” above them. The dark parking area, likely dirt, occurring on the gas station’s ground stands out in the front of the image; just beyond it is the road, beyond which we find a low level of dark hills that seem to support an open gray-white sky. The image is desolate beyond belief, looking like a cenotaph for an industry Frank somehow understood was already visibly linked to its demise. Social problems are always suggested in Frank’s melancholic, but highly accurate art, which presumes that the American dreams have deep rifts in its fabric.

 

Two more compelling images from The Americans: a really beautiful shot of a two-lane highway with white stripes separating the two strips, which seems to go on forever, into the unimaginable distance, in a straight line. Flat plains occur on either side of the road, with a heavy, dark sky covering the upper register of the photo, enlivened only by a thin strip of light cutting across the horizon. But despite the dark skies, both sides of the road are eerily lit, the left a little bit more so. It is likely too much to read this as an allegory of the American condition; but it does relate both to Frank’s innate gravitas as a photographer, as well as his complex reading of even the American landscape, whose bleak obscurity here is both an image by itself, devoid of allegorical meaning, and the intimation that we are in a hell with nowhere to go. The last image to be looked at is one of a young couple, no older than their early twenties, sitting on a long bench against a wall. They are dressed well: the male is in a black suit with a white shirt and a black tie; the female is clothed in what looks like a silk dress and sandals, with a long, narrow purse in her lap. But the young man looks off to our left in a gaze and demeanor that is detached and somber, while the young woman has her head down, so all we see is her shoulder-length dark hair. The pair could be at a dance or a church function, but they are entirely isolated, and their presence has something desolate, and terribly lonely, in its aura.

 

It seems clear then that if we emphasize Frank’s American pictures, he was both describing and judging, albeit slightly. After The Americans, he turned to filmmaking, shooting a film about the Rolling Stones and their libertine lives (the Stones sued, and the film was legally limited to five showings a year). Tragedies with his children--his daughter Andrea died in a plane crash in Guatemala in 1974, and his son Pablo, diagnosed with schizophrenia, died in a psychiatric hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1994--resulted in Frank’s keeping to himself. But his influence is indelible; he was one of the first, and surely one of the most truthful, chroniclers of an America whose attractiveness is surrounded by shadows. All history is tragic, but our culture seems to have pursued dislocation with a vengeance. Frank offered no solutions to the problems he so ably depicted, but likely the clarity of his vision amounts to a moral stance. While we can only speculate on his motives, we can indeed remember the staunchness of his work, his unflinching eye in the face of an American reality that has always been more troubling than it seemed.

 

Jonathan Goodman