New York

Robert Frank

Light Gallery

The Robert Frank exhibition, which is of “Unpublished Vintage Prints,” shows what a pitiless and smart editor of his own work Frank was. Several years ago Frank sold a large body of that work to a company which has since been selling the prints to dealers. Frank did this so that he would have both the time and the money to pursue the career as a filmmaker for which he gave up still photography 20 years ago. But the arrangement leaves the dealers free to exploit the Frank archive, to show and offer for sale work such as we see here—the work Frank himself decided against when he was the one doing the editing. What a shame.

It’s not that there are no good photographs in the show. Two pictures from Paris made in 1949–50, for instance, are really very good. One was taken from a stair leading down to a flower kiosk. In the upper left-hand corner, the owner’s face appears, impassive behind the window of her stall; in the lower right, a man in a beret darts into the frame. The other picture, made on the run like so much of the later work, contains a flower cart, halated light, lovers kissing as they hurry along the street. . . . If Robert Doisneau or Edouard Boubat had made these pictures, we would think they were wonderful. But they are simply not tough enough to be among Frank’s best work. The truth probably is that Frank would have been glad to sell these pictures for publication at the time if he could have. He was struggling to make a living as a commercial photographer in Paris, and not succeeding. His failure there was what eventually drove him back to America and to the photography that would in the end be published as The Americans.

Some of the early Paris pictures have a certain pleasing novelty to them, because hardly any of Frank’s work from that period has been published. But the unpublished photographs from the ’50s suffer more by comparison to The Americans, which Frank did at the decade’s end. Here is where we realize how incisive Frank was as the original editor of his work. Consider a picture from the show which might be thought of as a rejected alternative to one that appears in The Americans. Both are of newsstands. In the one that Frank chose for the book, a newsstand with tiers of magazines is set against an office building with a tiered facade. In the other picture, pairs of legs scurry along a sidewalk beyond a low counter on which stacks of newspapers are being held down by weights stamped “TIME.”

Juxtaposed to the motion-blurred legs, the paperweights function as a stern comment, a ponderous caption. The synecdochic quality of the photograph, representing people only by their legs, reinforces the feeling that a heavy symbolism is intended. (The picture was taken at the beginning of the decade when Frank was under the influence of Louis Faurer, who had recently experimented with a series of photographs made at ground level or cropped to show only feet and legs.) The picture from The Americans is a more tight-lipped observation. It is observation—not comment. In the visual relationship between a life-insurance building and a corner newsstand, there is perhaps a comment on the relationship between capitalism and mass culture. If so, however, the power of the comment comes from Frank’s own neutrality, from the off-hand way in which he presents the idea. His picture is a centerless, monolithic, almost purposely monotonous one. Therein lies its excellence. The comparison of it to the photograph in the exhibition only confirms that the Frank pictures worth thinking about and seeing again are still those which Frank himself chose to show us in the first place.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.