Robert Frank, and the disequilibrium of the in-between moment (7/23/08)

“I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others—perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.”

* Robert Frank, 1958 


When it comes to a discussion of the dichotomy between self-expression and reportage, Robert Frank’s enduring classic The Americans is a fine place to start. As an undergraduate student straddling the fence between photojournalism and art in the 1980’s, I, like countless others before and since found myself drawn to this dark, grainy little book. Much of what made The Americans resonate was the tension brought on by the book’s brash, subversive quality. This was liberating: photographs made with a subjective eye, shedding the pretenses of journalistic objectivity and stylistic convention. 

It has been well established that the Swiss-born Frank approached his Guggenheim-funded two-year odyssey across the continental United States with a philosophical approach that– unwittingly or not– opened the door to new and exciting possibilities for photography. Martha Rosler has written that Frank’s work reveals “leftwing anarchism.” (la Grange 119) Frank himself professed no such overtly political bent: “To produce an authentic contemporary document,” he once said, “the visual impact should be as such to nullify explanation.” (la Grange 111) Garry Winogrand would eventually take this attitude to its extreme, rejecting so aggressively all connections between himself and any shared public perception of his images that Rosler deemed his work “rightwing anarchism,” antithetical to Frank.


Frank took Walker Evans’ preoccupation with the iconography of an American vernacular to the cusp of postmodernism, turning jukeboxes, flags and politicians into symbols of what he interpreted to be a bland and faceless consumer culture. Often considered the progenitor of modern street photography, The Americans is commonly classified as documentary. Yet in the application for the Guggenheim Fellowship that would finance his travels, Frank’s alignment with his sponsor Walker Evans was clear: “The making of a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present . . . but it is only partly documentary in nature: one of its aims is more artistic than the word documentary implies.”  This reinforces his proposition that “it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.”   

Susan Sontag believed that whether a photographer’s main concern is self-expression or truthful recording, they both assume that the medium shows us reality in a new way. Both believe that reality is hidden; but there is a difference between Alfred Stieglitz’s “moment of equilibrium” (later refined by Cartier-Bresson into the “decisive moment”), and Frank’s “disequilibrium.”  Even while photographing familiar things, artists such as Frank, whose work opened the door for Garry Winogrand and others, aimed to find the “in-between moments,” to show a reality that is hidden and mysterious in some way. This obsession with catching reality off-guard” turned the intellectualized, realist manifesto of Cartier-Bresson on its ear. 


Comparing the two artists, Joel Meyerowitz said, “Robert’s form is looser, more conversational, harder, dirtier, ruder. Robert had his own tempo. He had balletic grace in his approach to making photographs.” His work has also been described as “athletic, spontaneous and daring.” Photography critic Anne Tucker writes “the force of these pictures in light of their spontaneity and innovation was, in the least, disturbing, and for many, unforgivably offensive.”

Put simply, it was the tension between form and content—the stylistic choices in concert with the aspects of American life that Frank was drawn to that made The Americans so controversial. One curator found it significant that Frank “disregarded the dictum that a photographer should keep the light behind him, the foreground in focus, and the subject still.” Others were far more vociferous in their condemnation: “If you dig out-of-focus pictures, intense and unnecessary grain, converging verticals, a total absence of normal composition, and a relaxed, snapshot quality, then Robert Frank is for you. If you don’t, you may find The Americans one of the most irritating photo books to make the scene.” In an era of American popular culture characterized by Father Knows Best, apple pie and nuclear bomb shelters, the subject matter was considered outrageous: “Frank’s book actually explores a very limited aspect of life in the United States, and it is the least attractive . . . it’s doubtful that he really thinks all Americans are simple beer-drinking, jukebox-playing, pompous, selfish, intolerant, money-worshipping, flag-waving, sacrilegious, insensitive folks. Therefore, it is only logical to conclude that his book is an attack on the United States.” Not surprisingly, Frank was arrested in the Deep South, and was accused of being a communist. Aside from the prudish flap over Mapplethorpe’s sexually charged work, or the squeamish reaction to the grotesque tableaus of Joel Peter-Witkin, one finds it difficult to imagine a book of photographs being published today that could incite reactions like this one from the editors of Popular Photography magazine: “If this is America then we should burn it down and start all over again.” (Popular Photography  v46, no5, May 1960) 


Frank was unapologetic: “The view is personal, and therefore, various facets of American society and life have been ignored.” Besides, he reminds us, “Criticism can also come out of love.” Robert Coles senses raw dignity, affection, surprise and perplexity more than any moral outrage in Frank’s “glimpses.” The Americans gave us what Coles insists was only a particular bourgeois Swiss man’s” version of the United States of America. 

“All original art looks ugly at first,” Clement Greenberg wrote in defense of modern art. The Americans has since earned the status of a classic, and is revered as something of a watershed in documentary photography. It stands as a quintessential postwar landmark, shattering photography’s zeitgeist with the same disregard for convention that the Abstract Expressionists exhibited in their rejection of representation, or that New Journalists such as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson employed to recast the boundaries of nonfiction writing. To artists similarly engaged in exploring news forms of representation, Frank’s work was appreciated from the start. “Seeing The Americans in a college bookshop was a stunning, ground-trembling experience for me,” gushed Ed Ruscha. “But I realized this man’s achievement could not be mined or imitated in any way, because he had already done it, sewn it up and gone home. What I was left with was the vapors of his talent.” A 50th anniversary edition of The Americans was released in 2008.