Frank photography. Three decades after pioneer photojournalist Robert Frank took to the road to record America, his controversial work is being rediscovered in books, a film, and a major traveling exhibition
Los Angeles — Anybody doesnt like these pitures, dont like potry, see? -Jack Kerouac
MANY Americans did not like the pictures Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank made when he crisscrossed the United States in the 1950s.
He was traveling to ``observe and record what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.''
Mr. Frank's resulting collection of photos called ``The Americans,'' didn't find a willing publisher until years after the project was completed.
The criticism was vitriolic, not just toward the content - bus depots, lunch counters, strip developments, empty spaces, and unknowable faces - bu against what was regarded as sloppy, unconvincing technique, as well:
``A wart-covered picture of America,'' one critic wrote.
``A mean use to put a camera to,'' said another.
``This book is not about Americans but about a wild, sad, distubed, adolescent, and largely mythical world,'' wrote a third.
``If you dig out-of-focus pictures, intense and unnecessary grain, converging vertca a total absence of normal composition, and a relaxed, snapshot quality, then Robert Frank is for you,'' wrote James N. Zanutto in Popular Photography magazine in May 1960.
Nearly 30 years later, Frank is the subject of four books published last yea a documentary film, and a major retrospective, which is touring nationwide through the end of this year. With the rise of photography as a formal course of study at universities, he has also become the subject of intense critical assessment.
Today his photographs are considered by many the most important work in photography in 40 years - ``one of modern art's magnificent achievements,'' according to Art in America, a monthly journal of the arts scene. Frank remains widely considered a major, seminal influence in the history of American photojournalism.
The pictures ``were anti-journalism in the golden heyday of photojournalism,'' says Anne Tucker, curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which put together the current exhibition. ``Suddenly for all photographers there was a new license and freedom to be convincing, powerful, intriguing without all the conformities to standards of the day about what a photograph had to be.''
Those entrenched ideas - employed by Paul Strand, Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and others - included clear detail, obvious composition, subject in center, the polished look of extreme, sometimes contrived control. With Frank, a new ethic emerged, the risk-taking of spontaneity, the freedom to let things happen without plan, and an exploratory vision that could be intensely personal.
The endurance of Frank in major historic photographic overviews, and the demand for his work that brings ``The Americans'' this year to a sixth printing, suggest that his work, like great art, may have become necessary food, nurturing the artistic appetites of subsequent generations.
```The Americans'' is a Bible I go back to again and again when I lose heart,'' says Joel Meyerowitz, one of a whole generation of ``street'' photographers such as Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, fueled by the influence of Frank.
``Every photographer since Frank owes him a major debt, because he obliterated the sanitized, America-as-a-gorgeous-sunset ethic,'' says photographer Dwayne Michals. ``His photographs became art without trying to be art.''
Mr. Meyerowitz left his job back in 1962 to pursue photography as a career after going out on a shoot with Frank. ``I was astonished by his swiftness, his almost balletic grace with a camera. He was my initial inspiration to take pictures, and remains the master to turn to for recurrent inspiration.''
Though Frank stopped photographing regularly about 1961, moving into short feature films, he has continued shooting still photos to the present day, always pushing the limits of the medium.
Now audiences can witness, in a single show - both still photos and film - the evolution of some 40 years of a vision that always remained at the cutting edge. Entitled ``From New York to Nova Scotia,'' the exhibition contains 188 photos spanning a career that crossed Europe and America, and embraced Peru and other countries of South America. Some of the photographs have never been exhibited before, shot years or even decades after ``The Americans.''
The exhibit, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through Sept. 6, also includes 12 films. It moves to the University Art Museum of the University of California, Berkeley, from Oct. 7 to Dec. 13.
In the photograph ``Political Rally, Chicago (1956),'' a man obscured behind a tuba shows the ambiguity of subject that was considered anarchic in the days of Life magazine's clearly linear photo essays.
``The subject arises from no one element,'' says the Houston museum's Anne Tucker. ``But rather here was the advent of a subject arising from the sum of its parts - bunting, instrument, booster badge, participant.''
Similarly, says Ms. Tucker, ``Words, Nova Scotia'' exhibits not only a gentle, poetic lyricism, but written and photographic elements presented humorously, drawing in the viewer to contemplate different levels of meaning, sometimes symbolic.
``Frank photos are open to much interpretation,'' she adds, ``depending on what the viewer brings to the photograph. They are stirring because of the rich variety of interpretation that can change, evolve with each viewing.''
The catalog accompanying the exhibit chronicles, through letters and essays, Frank's life before, during, and after ``The Americans.'' It is an open book into the mind, fueling an intensely personal vision.
``I am working very hard not just to photograph, but to give an opinion in my photos of America,'' he wrote to his parents. ``America is an interesting country, but there is a lot here I do not like and that I would never accept.''
The book has been acclaimed by artists for revealing Frank's struggles, doubts, and vulnerability. ``Artists like it because it shows that the evolution of a person's emerging creativity isn't always so tidy as art historians would have you believe later,'' says Tucker. ``This shows there were periods of anguish and misdirection when he wasn't sure what he was doing.''
That element of personal vulnerability is something communicated by the photographs themselves. Frank's themes are always evident: an awareness of religion, politics, music, and space. But because he didn't ever plan, but rather let the photographic elements happen, he is said to have failed many a commercial assignment.
But not the assignment that made him a legend. ``I think the trip was almost pure intuition - I just kept on photographing,'' Frank wrote of his 1956 travels. ``I kept on looking.... That made me work so hard until I knew that I had something, but didn't even know I had America.''
``The remarkable thing about him,'' adds photographer Michals, ``is that though he spawned generations of followers, no one in 40 years has surpassed him.''