Frankly American at the Met

 Robert Frank, "Movie Premiere—Hollywood" (1955) (via
Robert Frank, "Movie Premiere—Hollywood" (1955) (click to enlarge) via

Much has been written about the traveling exhibition The Americans, but here’s a recap: Swiss photographer Robert Frank won a Guggenheim fellowship and drove around the United States in 1955-56 taking pictures. His book The Americans, with a forward by Jack Kerouac, was published in 1959, and met with acclaim and controversy. Some people didn’t like the America that Frank saw. On the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, the entire series has been shown at several U.S. venues, and is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From images of a funeral in South Carolina to a wedding chapel in Reno, Frank revealed a nation that looked burdened, anxious, and lost. His images hum with a pathos usually reserved for portraits of the most destitute, and indeed, his camera shrouds workers and the poor in stark light. Yet, the wealthy are equally unsettling in their garish attempts at a glamorous façade — their make-up looks too thick, their sequins too gauche. Genuine smiles are rare throughout.

Some of Frank’s contact sheets are on display, where we can see how he narrowed down the 83 photographs he selected (out of 27,000). I wondered if happier scenes had been vetoed, but he never captured them in the first place. Frank’s particular vision was honed, and he faithfully sought out elegiac moments that twist the knife a bit: a man getting his shoes shined amidst a row of urinals in Memphis, the glossy empty leather chairs of a Houston bank, an older man wearily resting on a bench as young Yale graduates pass by in their commencement robes. The result is haunting, and profound.

 Robert Frank, "Funeral—St. Helena, South Carolina" (1955) (click to enlarge)
Robert Frank, "Funeral—St. Helena, South Carolina" (1955) (click to enlarge)

No one was safe from Frank’s lens, and no one was permitted to inhabit the happy artifice of advertising, which was on a breakneck rise at the time. America — a young empire of victory and hubris — must have presented a fascinating case study to a European émigré still mired in the aftermath of the war. The year 1955 seems as stable as meatloaf and potatoes, but it was the year of “Rebel Without a Cause,” Rosa Parks, and rock n’ roll. The tensions that would boil over a decade later were obvious to anyone who cared to notice that despite our new diplomatic muscle, or the perfect life promised in a Dodge advertisement, the American dream had not arrived.

Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans continues until January 3, 2010 at the Metropolitan Museum’s Howard Gilman Gallery, (2nd Floor).

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