Robert Frank "The Americans" - a short review
The Met is showing Robert Frank's seminal work The Americans now through, I think, December 27th. If you're interested in photography and live in or near New York you owe it to yourself to make it down there to see it. All 83 images, in order, in all their black and white darkroom printed glory. All of the prints are from the 50's and 60's and many were borrowed from other collections to put together the set. And despite what I'm going to say about them below, I think it's an opportunity to see a very famous work in it's entirety, and I've made the mistake of missing similar shows in the past and greatly regretted after the fact.
Ok, with that out of the way, and I know I'm going to kicked for this one, let me say right off the bat, I don't get it. There are certainly a number of fantastic photographs in the series, and something for everyone. I went with my delightful friend Lindsay, and we both had our favorites that the other disagreed with, but overall we came away unmoved. As Lindsay said while we were eating pie afterwords, "There were a few that thought were really great while looking at them, but I couldn't tell you what they were now". And I felt similarly. Frank had a great quote I read the other day too:
''When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice."
I'll admit that I have something of a bias against the quasi-street, quasi-reportage, quasi-documentary, quasi-art photography like this. I feel like it can't quite decide what it wants to be. Is it trying to record something leaving the interpretation up to the viewer, or push an interpretation from the get-go? If you read some of the quotes on the labels from Kerouac and the like, you'd think that the images were parting the Red Sea.
The thing is, part of the exhibit is a bunch of work prints and contact sheets and the like (This post has some examples). One of the labels said that he got it down to 1000+ images which he then culled down to the 83 in the book. That's 1000 selects, which had probably gone through quite a distillation process to even get there. Let's figure that he chose maybe one image per roll on average, so that's like 20,000 images over the course of two years driving around the country. Anybody is going to take some great pictures (though I'd like to say that as a rule, the images were not very good from a technical point of view. Often soft in focus, obviously heavily cropped from a larger frame, look like they had to be saved in the darkroom with lots of dodging and burning, etc. but I digress) So give a camera to your average joe and have him shoot 20,000 pictures over the course of 2 years, at a time when people didn't have the same phobia of getting their pictures taken as they do now, then distill out the best 83. I'm pretty sure you're going to get a decent sampling just by chance.
Again, it's not to say that the images are bad, quite far from it. Many are just fantastic, but I don't see how the series is as supposedly important as has been said. Before people start yelling at me about how it was of it's time and he was the first to do xyz and that's what makes it important, I'd like to say that there are other similar sets of photographs that people think are important and of their time that I think are great. Atget's pictures of Paris from the late 19th century, or Eggleston's work from the 60's and 70's, Avedon's portraits in the American West just to name a few. Even Larry Clark's Tulsa, which I don't personally enjoy because I have a squeamish thing about watching people shoot up drugs, I can almost understand how it was shocking or at least different from what was being shot at the time.
I'm sure many of you will disagree with me, but that's perfectly fine and what art is all about. Maybe you love Frank and can't stand Karsh. That's cool too. Either way, you should go by and see them while you can. Many are really great pictures and you probably won't see them together this way for a long long time.