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Robert Frank: His photographs recorded an unvarnished America

Robert Frank's candid images exposed the underside of midcentury America and were initially reviled.

By Carol StricklandContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 23, 2009

An exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is based on images from Robert Frank’s groundbreaking photography book ‘The Americans.’ The photos reveal stark scenes of American life between 1955 and 1956. Two women watch a parade in Hoboken, N.J.

Robert Frank/The metropolitan Museum of art

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In a 1985 video, photographer Robert Frank stated: "I am always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true." An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 3, 2010, "Looking In: Robert Frank's 'The Ameri-cans,' " displays the results of his quest. Honoring the 50th anniversary of the American publication of Frank's book of photographs, "The Americans," the show is the first time these 83 controversial prints have been exhibited in their entirety in a New York museum.

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His photographs succeeded so brilliantly in expressing unvarnished truth that they produced a wail of shock when published in 1959. It took another outsider, Beat writer Jack Kerouac, to appreciate the book, saying in the introduction: "He sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world."

Metropolitan curator of photographs Jeff Rosenheim seconds Kerouac's praise, saying Frank's book is "universally considered to be a landmark in 20th-century art." According to Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at Washington's National Gallery of Art, who edited the catalog, "The Americans" is "among the most seminal photography books ever published" and "forever changed the course of 20th-century photography."

Such recognition was slow in coming. At first the photographs, which present a panoramic portrait of Americans at work and play, were construed as a diatribe against the American character. "Initially reviled, even decried by critics and photographers alike as anti-American, [the book] simply revealed too much," Mr. Rosenheim said in a panel discussion on the work. Among negative comments were dismissals like "a sad poem for sick people," "a slashing, bitter attack," and "a wart-covered picture of American institutions."

Only the fearless Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press dared to print untouchables like Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, and D.H. Lawrence, risked publishing a tiny edition in the US. In the museum panel discussion, Mr. Rosset recalled seeing the photographs: "I recognized immediately the faces of ... people who were exuding emotions through their pores."

The photographs, he added, "have a magic abstraction. [Frank's] film carries the seed of what the viewer provides to make it come to life." To interpret the ambiguous, open-ended images, Rosset said the viewer "had to put yourself into those photographs, and no one could predict what would come out of that coalition of you and the photographer."

How the photographs came into existence is a story in itself. Frank, born in 1924 to German Jewish parents in Zurich, knew what it was like to feel in jeopardy as Hitler's armies closed in around Switzerland. He came to New York in 1947 seeking wider opportunities. He got one when the Guggenheim Foundation gave him a grant for a photographic survey of America, to reveal, in Frank's words, "the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere." From 1955 to 1956 he traveled 10,000 miles in a used Ford, traversing more than 30 states and shooting 767 rolls of film.