DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       March 2005  

 

Beauty and ‘the Beats’-- Robert Frank’s “The Americans” (1955-56): Poised for New Highs in the Age of Bush?  

By BRIAN APPEL


Robert Frank U.S. 285, New Mexico 1956
gelatin silver print, 13-1/2 x 9-3/4 inches
Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Kids: “What are you doing here?”

R.F.:  “I’m just taking pictures.”

Kids:  “Why?”

R.F.:  “For myself – just to see…”

Kids:  “He must be a Communist.  He looks like one.  Why don’t you go to the other side of town and watch the niggers play?”

This dialogue was an exchange between photographer, Robert Frank, and a group of eight male students in front of the Port Gibson High School in Port Gibson, Mississippi in 1955.  It represents one of the rare instances when Frank recollected an experience he had while shooting what was to become one of the most ambitious projects in the history of photography. The project, namely the publication of his Guggenheim funded 1955-56 travelogue of the United States resulted in the 1958 publication of “The Americans.” (Note:  the above-quoted conversation appeared opposite four pictures of this group of boys re-introduced by Frank thirty-four years after the fact in the Pantheon Books, 1989 publication, “The Lines of My Hand”).  Like “The Americans” itself, this slice of dialogue serves as a concrete reminder of one of the most disquieting periods in American history.  America and the Soviet Union were on a collision course to see who could launch the world’s first satellite into space and there was widespread belief that American Communists were conducting atomic espionage for the Soviet Union.  It was at the height of the cold war -- the conviction of Alger Hiss in 1948, the 1950-54 rise and fall of Senator Joe McCarthy, and the June ’54 executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- fueling paranoia and naïve racism and broadening the gap between rich and poor, blacks and whites, and leaders and followers.

It was in this capricious environment that Frank -- a Swiss born, heavily-accented Jewish photographer, who immigrated to America soon after World War II to pursue a fashion career at “Harper’s Bazaar” -- began his pan-American exploration.  Recently estranged from the claustrophobic confines imposed by his New York editors at “Bazaar,” “Life,”“Look,” and “The New York Times,” Frank took to criss-crossing practically every state in the union in a second-hand automobile (often with his wife Mary and their two small kids in tow.)  As he said,  he sought  “… to speak of things that are there, anywhere and everywhere – easily found, not easily selected and interpreted.” 

Like Jack Kerouac in 1950, Frank based what was to become “The Americans” on a series of largely “pointless” journeys across the country in the search for an unpolished, headlong look at the American cultural terrain.  Frank invited Kerouac to write the introduction to his book.  Both men shared the belief that U.S. power had an often corrupting influence; the most important political aim of the “Beat” movement was to change the country spiritually and culturally.  Kerouac’s “true-story novels” and Frank’s photographs which were “…giddy with images of patriotism and militarism…” helped to name that discontent.  Frank’s work looked at the systems of control from the corporate, political, religious, academic, consumerist and family cultures at the time.  For Frank, being Jewish and growing up in a neutral country in Europe during WW 11 and seeing all those Jews surrounding him being rounded up and terminated must have contributed greatly to his deeply emotional, socio-political vision.  The result was this sensational 83-image tome edited from over 20,000 exposures.  During this two year period, he produced a narrative that revealed a dark, homogenized conformist America, with a predictable sameness that offered neither solution nor solace. 

It was also a time when Edward Steichen’s 1955 “The Family of Man” debuted at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and became the most heavily attended photographic exhibition in MoMA’s history.  Here was an optimistic take on the role of democracy positing that no matter how diverse the world’s make-up we are all part of the same family. Although Frank actually worked on this project with Steichen, back in 1953, the sheer mawkishness of some of the accompanying text -- snippets from the Bible and other great works -- and the hubris of its intentions, turned him off to it.  He did not share the director’s sentimental vision which removed the events depicted from their historical context and drained them of any ‘real’ meaning.  He left the curatorial team well before the show opened.  Perhaps Frank’s proximity to the “editorial preferences” of Steichen made him realize that the observer/photographer not only records but can change the depiction of events and that the editor has the “power” to neutralize this voice by putting the overall concerns of the curatorial agenda above the unique voice of the artist.  Regardless of the fact that seven of Frank’s earlier pictures were included in “The Family of Man”, Frank himself would no longer be part of what he must have felt were the museum’s “fine speeches” dealing with Justice, Brotherhood and Democracy.  Frank was in the process of discovering that photography as an art form goes beyond the single image to become an artistic study of people within their environment and that photographs don’t have to be beautiful in a conventional way or morally uplifting to have value. 

Walker Evans New York (Subway passengers, New York) 1938
gelatin silver print,, 4-1/2  x 7-1/4 inches
Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Then, of course, there was Walker Evans.  Evans had pointed the way some 20 years earlier with his seminal book, “American Photographs”, (1938) by exploring the possibilities of how ordinary things like the car, a barbershop, a sharecropper’s rural home depicted in highly detailed verisimilitude, could function as a self-assigned map of an artist’s journey.  Exposing an unadorned side of America that the critics would not wish the world to see was one of the unique characteristics that the camera could provide.  Painting or sculpture could not possibly tackle the visual acuity and lack of “artiness” that the straight-ahead gaze of Evans’s camera allowed.  This was a road followed which ran against the “pictorialist” traditions of artists like Steiglitz and Steichen whose agendas were a far cry from the frank, grindingly authentic images that Evans’s lens provided.  Walker wanted his role as mediator to disappear so that the viewer could look at the world directly, unfiltered by the hand of the artist if you will. 

Frank’s work, like Evans’s, focuses in on the “ordinary”, but the landscape has changed.  Plastic and chrome appear where wide-plank wood and steel had been.  Jukeboxes mediate on top of drugstore lunch counters and people scowl as they are being photographed.  Here are politicians caught literally “kissing up” and assembly-line workers hypnotized by the grind of repetition.  Cross-dressers pose and ‘Merry Christmas’ signs hang hollowly at the convenience store.  Frank took the camera off the tripod and carried it around his neck or hidden in his jacket and squeezed off photographs on the run and from the hip.  The formal eloquence of Evans’s large format images were replaced by the gritty, rough-and-ready style of a street photographer working in a spontaneous, apparently casual style.  His small Leica was often prefocused in the 5-6 foot range so he could steal a shot off before being noticed -- a man playing a tuba at a political rally whose head has been rendered anonymous by the bell of the instrument, two people without faces, the American flag usurping their identities. He would shoot in crowds unseen or when people’s heads were diverted or hidden.  Frank was not working for the Farm Security Administration or “Fortune” magazine or “Harper’s Bazaar” or “Life” for that matter.  He had his own agenda.  In the tradition of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, Frank’s camera was a weapon against cultural and political conservatives and he saw it serve as an important avenue for expressing himself politically.  The little vitality he recorded came from America’s sub-cultures and counter-cultures and no doubt he was on a mission to persuade and possibly change what he felt were the narrow alternatives offered by the establishment’s culture.  The images he created had a political power that, contrary to traditional photo journalism, was not dependent upon the favors of others.  His work authentically conveyed a vision unencumbered or constrained by a long list of backscratchers or lobbyists or by the realities embedded in the lining of a paycheck.  His work, unlike Evans’s, was not immediately embraced.  No one wanted to publish his images in any magazine and thus ended that particular chapter in his life.  Editors felt his images were scratchy, grainy, sometimes out-of-focus and depressive; his bleak collections of slices of small-town America caught with its racist, homophobic pants down was the antithesis of a hungry public’s voracious need for pictures of “celebrated people” and “newsworthy events”.

Practically no one was collecting photographs as fine art at the time of Frank’s, “The Americans”, so producing, signing, and numbering prints of this work in an edition wasn’t yet dreamed of.  The result is that the tiny number of “vintage” prints from this body of work (when and if they do go up for auction) sell in the $130,000 - $198,000 range and have been practically doubling in value every year for the last couple of years (“vintage” refers to prints made by the artist in close proximity to the exposure).  The more available, less rare, and less silver-saturated prints from the 70s (the so-called “printed later” versions without the dense black and sparkling white of the “vintage” prints) are now approaching six figures.  Judging by the astronomical gains in prices that single images from “The Americans” have been going for at auction the last four seasons, iconic “vintage” print price points could move into Diane Arbus “vintage” territory in the $250,000 - $350,000 range, especially if the provenance involves a particularly prestigious collector or history of ownership.  Critics have pointed out that Frank’s dime store cowboy, New York transvestites, sardonic Jehovah’s Witness and dolled-up older Miami Beach couple opened the window to Arbus’s world. 

Incidentally, while I was researching the conditions surrounding the origins and politics behind “the Beats”, the early and mid-50s was starting to look a lot like what’s going on today.  America’s renewed emphasis on patriotism and increased vigilance since 9/11 with the “spreading of Democracy” and the frequent mentioning of the U.S. “Imperialist stance” is eerily resonant.  Could this have something to do with the increase in prices of Frank’s very politically edgy take on America as we approach the 50th anniversary of its execution?

Despite the relative non-market for the fine-art photographic print at the time, the vehicle of the book was a potentially viable medium to reach the public soon after the images were exposed.  In 1958, after being turned down by every American house he approached, Frank partnered with a French publishing house led by Robert Delpire.  With a cover by Saul Steinberg, “Les Americains” hit the marketplace with its unique sequencing of images capturing the alienation and simmering economic and racial disparities of a country with a visionary brilliance no one had seen before.  The iconic images were accompanied by a collage of diverse quotations from De Tocqueville and John Brown to William Faulkner, Mary McCarthy and the Kinsey Report.  The “quasi-sociological” text was stripped away for the American version the following year by Grove Press when Kerouac came on board with his introduction. 

As the recently-closed gem of an exhibition, “Few Are Chosen: Street Photography and the Book, 1936-1960” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art points out, the book could provide an environment for photographs to be “…savored and their messages slowly teased out by the viewer…” and further, “…the artist could also string pictures together to create a larger, cumulative expression”.  The photography department’s curators assembled a small selection of from five to seven images from each of what the Metropolitan Museum feels is six of fine art photography’s most “ambitious and artfully sequenced surveys” in monographic form in the 20th century -- a total of only 35 images.  Walker Evans’s “Many Are Called”, Helen Levitt’s “A Way of Seeing”, Bill Brandt’s “The English At Home”, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment” and William Klein’s “Life Is Good for You in New York” made the cut with Frank.  This cherry-picked grouping could only have come from a collection that is as broad and expansive as this museum -- there are presently 58 works by Frank in the Metropolitan’s collection.  The show concluded its installation with six images from “The Americans”.  An exquisitely existential photograph of a road leading to infinity and nowhere at the same time, “U.S. 285, New Mexico”, 1956, an extremely rare “vintage print” that beautifully describes what this visionary was up to 10-15 years before the fine art marketplace caught up to him closes out Frank’s sampling and ends this timely show.  Frank’s other five images are breathtakingly rare examples from this Eisenhower-years’ odyssey but “printed-later” versions from the original negatives.  To give the reader an idea as to how scarce these images are, Pace/MacGill, New York (Frank’s official worldwide dealer) has gone on record stating there are only four complete portfolios existing at all, and all four are “printed later”, (in the 70s) and placed in museums; Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Ma., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Tx., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Calif., and Maison Europeenne de la Photographie, Paris, France.      

Some areas of the fine art photography market have become white hot as rapidly rising prices lure a small but growing number of ordinary people into buying and selling works without the intention to hold or collect.  People will always invest in a market that seems to just go up, and the contemporary art market (especially photography) is starting to look a little like the day traders of the 1990s dot-com boom.  If demand exceeds availability, a cueing system arises where the dealer will prioritize buyers to buy.  In situations like this, the dealer’s first responsibility will be to select a collector who will bring the most prestige to the artist.  Traditionally, museums are the first choice followed closely by collectors with fine reputations or public viewing arenas.  When a collector takes a particularly desired piece to the auction house (as opposed to back to the dealer), this pecking order dissolves and it becomes simply about the money.  Here is where runaway price increases can occur as the house’s responsibility is with attaining the highest price on behalf of the seller as opposed to trying to control what happens to art after they’ve been sold.  Auction houses typically charge 15% to the seller and 20% to the buyer as a premium on top of final “hammer” price so demand and desirability can be the main factor in being accepted into an auction catalogue.  Dealers will often compete with other dealers, collectors, enthusiasts and “others with deep pockets” when buying at auction to protect their inventories or in the hopes of cashing in on inflating demand.  They may even be attempting to protect their artist’s work from future manipulation in the open market.  Given its finite inventory and ever-increasing demand, “The Americans” is perfectly positioned for this kind of speculation in the secondary market. 

The increasing velocity at which silver paper and silver embedded film is disappearing in favor of light-sensitive computer chips and instant viewing on monitors is also playing its role in making these images that much more precious.  The fact that the digital revolution has liberated photography from its unique mnemonic relationship to reality means that never-again can we look at a photograph and say definitely that what we are looking at was “real”.  This phenomenon is pushing “traditional” prices upward as it simultaneously allows for “contemporary photography” as an art form to, in effect, rise to the same level as, say, any of the other contemporary art mediums.  Simultaneously, enthusiasts and collectors are looking back at people like Frank and Arbus and Winogrand and Eggleston and they’re seeing how much influence they’ve had on the contemporary artists who are working now/today. 

Frank introduced a new kind of visceral, formal beauty coupled with a cynicism so extreme it almost takes on a kind of mythic innocence.  Like Kerouac’s “On The Road”, and Ginsberg’s “Howl”, Robert Frank’s “The Americans” removed the literal, grammatical and syntactical inhibitions associated with the image, and acted as a catalyst for what was to become a period of Gay, Black and Women’s liberation.  Civil rights marches, anti-war demonstrations as well as the rise of pop culture would not have been possible without ‘the Beats’ clearing a way from the stifling, conformist cultural values of the 50s.  All three works were unique responses to a volatile moment in our cultural history and changed forever the landscape of their perspective mediums and us in the process.  

 

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