Sunday, October 11, 2009

Robert Frank's "The Americans"

We saw the Robert Frank photography exhibit at the Met today. In the mid-1950s, with a Guggenheim fellowship in his pocket, he drove all around the country taking pictures of the people and places he encountered. He picked through his contact sheets, selected 80-some images and carefully organized them into a book that became a lightning rod of political and artistic criticism. He was a deft photographer who arranged his images carefully, so that each one bore some relation to the images that came before and after. He discovered and chronicled a nation of highways, jukeboxes, sharply-dressed men and elegant women, lonely shoe-shiners or elevator girls, crowded trolley cars, bustling dinettes, couples in love, wary bikers and transvestites, cads and children, bars and funerals.

I bought the reprint of "The Americans," complete with a breathlessly verbose introduction by Jack Kerouac. It's no comparison to seeing the prints inflated on a museum wall, but it packs a punch. There is a lot to admire in this work, not least of which is Frank's own ambition. Who embarks on a road trip with the intent of capturing the national character of a sprawling place like this? Does anyone even try to do that anymore? Sometimes I stumble on a novel or a movie or a portfolio like this, the effort of someone who has tried and attained some degree of success in the endeavor, and every time it happens I realize that this is my favorite kind of art.

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