Monday, October 19, 2009

Looking In: Robert Frank's "The Americans"

The Met exhibition features all 83 of the photographs in Frank's "The Americans," made on a cross-country roadtrip in 1955-56. The experience of seeing the photographs on the wall was very different from that of viewing the images in a book. Looking at the photos so carefully sequenced by Frank, I was led in a linear fashion from room to room, and so experienced in a small way the journey he undertook to record the common joys and sorrows of Americans. At the end of the roadtrip, I had the sensation of experiencing an epic.

Each section of his book, and of the exhibit, begins with a photograph of the American flag. The flag hides the faces of two women looking out of a tenement. It declares its patriotism from the top of a bar, between Washington and Lincoln. Translucent and bright, it descends from nowhere, like a spirit, onto a family picnic. The photographs are juxtaposed to bring out subtle connections and contrasts. Detroit workers on a hellish assembly line gives way to fat-cat politicians at the Democrat National Convention. An African American infant left alone to fend for itself in an empty bar turns into a cherubic white boy enscounced between the protective figures of two women. Sometimes the link is linguistic. Stars on the flag in one photograph, and in a diner on the next become a Hollywood starlet in the third.

LW remarked on the rhythm set up by this visual procession. Many of the photographs actually show people in motion. Where they are still, they are photographed in a tilted manner that lends them dynamism. Cars and roads appear and reappear like a musical motif. A man who died in a motor accident still speaks of the thrill and danger of the road. Nietzsche describes the decadent style as one which has lost organic unity, so a part leaps out at the expense of the whole. "The Americans" have memorable individual images, but the whole of it seems greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps that was the promise of the relatively young art of photography: a way of overcoming decadence.

No comments: