Friday, August 19, 2011

Passion and Purpose

by Drew Martin

I recently watched Philippe Séclier's documentary An American Journey in Robert Frank's Footsteps (2009). What I found most interesting was the discussion of how the actual title of Frank's photography book The Americans (1958) caused a stir.

Photo historian, Stuart Alexander explains how many of the same images appeared in US Camera 1958 and were accepted as Frank's personal experience but by using the title The Americans, his capturing of uncomfortable truths seemed judgemental.

I wish the idea/motif that it takes an outsider to show an American what the country is about could have been better balanced or expanded. This is true of every place, not just America, is it not? It is also inherently false, which is why the French filmmaker's retracing of this expatriated German-Jewish-Swiss' footsteps first comes off as presumptuous and as annoying as an American abroad digging deep for genealogical records. What saves the film from estrangement for a US audience are the candid and quirky Americans who are interviewed and guilelessly come across as good natured and nonjudgmental.

In the film, photographer and acquaintance Wayne Miller recounts a talk Frank gave at the Museum of Modern Art in 1956, where he discussed how good photography can only come from a combined sense of passion and purpose; one without the other does not work. Miller explains that part of Frank's purpose was anger. The most interesting thing he noted about Frank was that he would edit his negatives. This means that instead of cropping the exposure of an image in the darkroom, Frank would cut the actual negative before making prints and throw away the rest. Miller was in awe of this method, which he said took courage and conviction. He added that he was envious of his servitude and insurance.

His printer, Sid Kaplan, speaks of the challenging prints, which "took a lot of time and paper." In his creative relationship with Frank, he likens him to the architect and himself to the engineer. This relationship sounds hand-in-glove but he is also saying "he could not have done it without me." He shows a famous picture by Frank of people on a trolley car and he explains the under- and over-exposing that was necessary to make it work. Hearing him and seeing the final print is not validated until the same photo is shown at another part of the film on a contact sheet. It is a completely different image; flatter and washed out.

Peter Galassi, a curator at the Museum of Modern, explains that during Frank's time New York, the magazine aesthetic completely dominated photography; photography had a strong tradition as independent art, but was buried under weight of magazine world, in which Frank worked to make a living. He goes on to say that the photographers had to create their own place in the art world, which included the idea that a photographer could be an artist. It seems hard to believe, but according to the film there were no galleries in New York City at that time that showed photographs.

The Americans is hailed as a landmark book and a landmark view of the United States. Ed Ruscha said Frank brought together the American dream and American nightmare. Art critic Vicky Goldberg said Frank created a rent in the fabric that the nation had constructed.

Fellow photographer, John Cohen said Frank created the biographical photograph and photography teacher Jno Cook said that Frank made serial images that are cinematically related, which refer back to previous frames and make you wonder what is going to come next.

Frank's publisher, Barney Rosset lumped him together with Kerouac and Ginsberg because like them, Frank was able to connect with ruffians and "come away alive." Rosset explains that although it may not have been obvious in that period, "things come out in different arts but it takes a long time to make the connection."

The first appearance of The Americans was as Les Américains. It was published in Paris by Robert Delpire. Curiously, instead of using one of Frank's images for the cover, Delpire chose a drawing by that other great visual genius in exile, Saul Steinberg. Frank asked Delpire if it was too weird, to which he replied that is was complementary.

The film ends with Séclier's reflective narration offering that before Frank settled down in his adoptive home, he made this visual tour of America, covering 15,000 miles: He saw the land as it is, passed all the tests and felt the real pain of loneliness. He must have thought "I like it" and America responded "Ok you can be one of us."