New York

Robert Frank

Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) is arguably the twentieth century’s iconic art book. Its photos, taken by Frank during a circuitous cross-country road trip in 1955 and 1956, are voyeuristic records of Americans who had sloughed off depression, won wars, and forged the world’s model consumer society. The Swiss-born artist conveyed an America of bliss and ignorance, hip yet generic, its landscape and psychology both wide open. Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of Frank’s book of eighty-three photographs and—incredibly—the first time the entire suite was shown in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the final stop of a tour that originated at the organizing institution, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC).

Contrarians and hard-core Frank fans often argue for the early-1970s documentary Cocksucker Blues as his masterpiece. The unreleased and rarely screened vérité-style film follows the Rolling Stones around the States during their Exile on Main Street tour. A wall of Frank’s photographs ended up gracing the cover of that album, which is arguably among the Stones’ best, steeped in the Frank-like ethic of charting, conjuring, and sometimes reveling in seamy Americana. Frank’s most evocative work is indubitably charged by the psychic energy of his adopted homeland, so an exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery juxtaposing photos from The Americans with lesser-known images made both earlier and later—some shot in the US, but others taken in Paris and London—was an experiment in how an artist’s less familiar work holds up in the shadow of iconicity.

The earliest photo on view was a New York City shot from 1948, taken shortly after Frank had moved to the US. It pictures a row of bench sitters from behind looking like a phalanx of pigeons in Washington Square Park—voyeurs spied by a fellow voyeur. Even in this pre-Americans image, there’s a vaguely illicit quality that hangs about Frank’s snapshots of American life that isn’t communicated in his photos of Europe. Perhaps his gaze cast a different effect over midcentury Europeans than it did Americans; the Americans of The Americans feel profoundly unselfconscious—politicians preening and screaming, trannies gleefully posing, cowboys staring yonder. The images of street life in Paris and London in the Mann show depict staid cities of mist and romance; they reinforce stereotypes. A few portraits of artists taken in 1962 do the same: De Kooning grimly mugs in half-light, Giacometti broods heavily before a drawing, Kerouac sits in an unmade bed in his shirtsleeves, all manic energy. The photos Alfred Wertheimer shot of Elvis Presley in 1956, where the twenty-one-year-old King is the picture of self-absorption, would make for fascinating antidotes to Frank’s wooden portraits; Wertheimer’s camera eye is just another eye for Elvis to primp his hair for.

The agency of The Americans photos is their sense of invasion—certainly into the sacredness of American political ceremony, but more crucially into Americans’ private space. America was founded on privacy, and here Frank’s photos violate something intrinsic that his images of street life in Europe and his portrait shots simply do not. The Americans pictures American life during the decade when the country’s values solidified. If they are quintessentially ’50s photos, an unfamiliar photo from the Mann show titled Platte River, Tennessee, 1961 encapsulates the subsequent decade. A broad-shouldered man in a dark, ill-fitting suit dominates the foreground and calmly stares at a lonely field where a cow grazes, oblivious to the revolutions that await.

Nick Stillman