New York

Robert Frank

Marlborough | Midtown

Robert Frank’s departure from still photography in the early 1960s is well known, the artist having concluded each of his books with sections of stills from the films to which he turned. One senses that Frank repudiated photography bitterly, yet he has returned to it sporadically in recent years, in one instance publishing his work of two decades ago in The Lines of My Hand. Occasionally he has also allowed exhibitions of his photographs. I do not think that I am the only admirer of Frank’s pictures who was disappointed by the current show, which he shared with an old friend, Gotthard Schuh.

The pictures in this show, from the general period 1949–51, seem to be no more than what Frank happened to have lying around and was more than happy to see on sale. The prints themselves are mostly faded and bleached with age, sometimes chewed and torn through mishandling. Few, if any, of these pictures are outstanding performances, though the time Frank spent in Paris, London, Wales and Spain did yield some brilliant work which has surfaced elsewhere. I suspect the current show results from lack of care, but it might have been rationalized as a presentation of photographs heretofore unseen. It is, therefore, interesting for the glimpse it gives of the early development of Frank’s sensibility.

Frank claims two photographers, Walker Evans and Bill Brandt, as major influences. His pictures suggest that Cartier-Bresson was another, and that his manner was forged and his content understood in an effort to avoid certain aspects of these artists’ styles while synthesizing others. Among his Parisian work are frequent pictures of flowers, parks, endless cobblestone streets, and lovers dancing or laughing with abandon. Such material, as Frank disposes it, is not strictly adopted from Cartier-Bresson’s, but is a hyperbolized extension of it. Cartier-Bresson’s subjects exude comfort with their milieux, accept and play their dramatic roles easily, enjoy their leisure without hesitation. I doubt that Frank was ever comfortable creating a world where this natural sense of being at home in it was so fundamental. The flowers and waltzing couples that populate many of Frank’s early pictures reach metaphorically for that edenic satisfaction and self-assurance, but do so from such incongruous surroundings (tulips on display in a battered suitcase, two dancing couples clinging to opposite edges of a frame so closely that they hardly maintain their place inside it) that they are not only reaching, but clearly straining.

And at the same time such subjects are stretching to enter or recall Cartier-Bresson’s easeful world, Frank is already at work undoing their effort. In other pictures of the same period he gives us age, disease, mystery and grisly death. In one picture in the current show a bull, already mortally wounded and bristling banderillas, stands passively in close-up as the bullfighters attend to other distractions. In another picture of the period, a horse hangs upside down by one leg, stunningly backlit, in a slaughterhouse. Again, three boys bombard an aged horse with stones in a city lot, similar to a field that was the scene of happier play in a certain Cartier-Bresson picture. A young woman sleeping in the grass beside a bouquet of daisies lies as if she had fainted or been shot. (These last three pictures did not appear in the Marlborough show but are reproduced in The Lines of My Hand.)

The pictures in the exhibition at hand do not reconcile or combine the two, somewhat opposed, emotional stances I have been describing. One picture will be concerned with light, love or blossoms while another will offer death and decay. Later, they are condensed into the romantic irony that is basic to Frank’s most famous work. By the time he reaches The Americans, the two sides work together to generate the luxurious despondency that pervades that opus, i.e. the elevator girl of Miami Beach, lovely, sullen, gazing up from underneath, whom we see for a moment only through a space in the shuffle of her black and shadowy passengers, her captors.

Frank’s recent show was instructive in these various strains of his work, but lacking any major photographs, it provided a fairly disinterested pleasure. It is worth noting that Frank has lately lent his approval to various manipulative photographers, and it is possible that he felt that their esthetic somehow sanctioned the bleached and detailless prints he showed. Unfortunately, his photographs are rich in nuance, texture and chiaroscuro, and fail to benefit from that abuse.

Leo Rubinfien