Prejudices from an exhibition

Anthony Lane has a lovely piece in the New Yorker about the new exhibition of Robert Frank’s famous visual study of his adopted country. Here’s how it begins:

In June, 1955, Robert Frank bought a car. It was a Ford Business Coupe, five years old, sold by Ben Schultz, of New York. From there, Frank drove by himself to Detroit, where he visited the Ford River Rouge plant, in Dearborn, as if taking the coupe home to see its family. Later that summer, he headed south to Savannah, and, with the coming of fall, set off from Miami Beach to St. Petersburg, and then struck out on a long, diversionary loop to New Orleans, and thence to Houston, for a rendezvous with his wife, Mary, and their two children, Pablo and Andrea. Together, they went west, arriving in Los Angeles in the nick of Christmastime. They stayed on the Pacific Coast until May of the following year, when Mary and the children returned to New York. Frank, however, still wasn’t done. Alone again, he made the trip back, going via Reno and Salt Lake City, then pushing north on U.S. 91 to Butte, Montana. From there, it was a deep curve, though a swift one, through Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa to Chicago, where he turned south; at last, by early June, Frank and his Ford Business, his partner for ten thousand miles, were back in New York. It had been a year, more or less, since he embarked, and there was much to reflect upon. Luckily, he’d taken a few photographs along the way.

In fact, he took around twenty-seven thousand…

In the end, Frank chose only 83 images from the 27,000 for the book which was published in November 1958 in Paris under the title Les Americains. From all of this he earned the princely sum of $817. He also received a lot of ordure from American critics, who were infuriated by his calm, detached view of their variegated, segregated, free-enterprise paradise. They saw this Swiss immigrant photographer as an agitator, the enemy within. (Remember, though, that this was the country which spawned Senator McCarthy.) Lane’s piece — and the contemporary exhibition — looks at The Americans with a less hysterical eye. The New Yorker prints Frank’s photograph of customers at a Drug Store counter in Detroit, a fascinating, disturbing image in which every countenance seems to tell a story. Here’s how Lane describes it:

Every stool is taken; the customers are waiting for their orders, two of them clasping their hands as if saying grace. Half of them look straight ahead, like drivers in dense traffic; not one seems to be talking to his neighbors. As Greenough [Curator of the current exhibition] suggests, this broken togetherness would have been bewildering to one who grew up amid the café society of Europe, with its binding hubbub.

Mind you, what would the diners say, if quizzed on their silence? Maybe they just came off a noisy shift, and could use a minute’s peace; maybe they’re simply tired and hungry; maybe, with a grilled-cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee inside them, they might warm up, and, if the man with the camera returned in half an hour, he would walk into a perfect storm of yakking. Whenever I see Frank’s photograph, with its citrus slices of cardboard or plastic dangling overhead, I think of “The Blues Brothers,” and John Candy briskly ordering drinks for himself and a couple of cops: “Orange whip? Orange whip? Three orange whips.” For every segment of melancholia that Frank cut from America, in other words, America could dish up a comic response, or at least an upbeat equivalent.

The great thing about the exhibition — and the massive book that’s been spun off from it, is that it enables us to look behind the editing and selection process that Frank employed when whittling down his 27,000 images to 83.

When he picked up a pair of hitchhikers and allowed one of them to drive, the sideways image that he took shows the driver—a dead-eyed ringer for Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”—in determined profile. Check the contact sheet at the back of the catalogue, and you come across the succeeding frame: same angle, same guy, but now with a definite grin—closer in mood, instantly, to the Dreyfuss who gunned his truck in pursuit of the alien craft, his face lit with chirpy wonder.

The extra information one gleans from seeing contact sheets and Frank’s notes should caution anyone from drawing bold inferences from any single image, because often such interpretations involve projecting one’s own prejudices onto the photograph. A famous photograph in The Americans shows a number of smartly-dressed black dudes lounging alongside cars at a funeral. It was taken in North Carolina, I think, and many viewers over the years (me included) assumed that the men were probably chauffeurs patiently waiting for their white masters. But Frank’s contact sheet reveals that the men are actually attending an African-American funeral.

This is an exhibition I’d love to see, but it doesn’t seem to be coming to Europe. Ah well, I’ll just have to get the book

En passant: The New Yorker has a small slideshow to accompany Anthony Lane’s piece.