Robert Frank – The Instantaneous Reaction to Oneself

Robert Frank: The Americans, Steidl / Zander Galerie / Pace Gallery, 2024

Book specs:

Page size: 8.2 x 7.2 inch / 20.9 x 18.4 cm.  Page count: 36. Paper: 170g coated.  Binding: clothbound hardcover black cloth, white foil stamping. Printing: Offset Tritone with matted inks and matted varnish.

Printed by Steidl, Göttingen – Germany

Essay by David Campany

Published on the occasion of:

Robert Frank, The Americans, 1954-1957. 84 gelatin silver prints on Agfa paper 12 x 16 inches (30.5 cm x 40.6 cm), each sheet. Each signed. Printed by photographer Ed Grazda, under Robert Frank’s supervision, in 1983. One of three 12 x 16-inch sets, two of which reside in the collections of the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, France

All photographs © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation

Text © David Campany




The Instantaneous Reaction to Oneself

by David Campany

The phrase instantaneous reaction to oneselfis pure Robert Frank. As with his photographs, his choice of words could feel disarmingly simple, but with endless depth. He used this particular expression in a statement published in US Camera 1958, accompanying a portfolio of the photographs he had made on the road in the USA. Here is a longer extract:

With these photographs, I have attempted to show a cross-section of the American population. My effort was to express it simply and without confusion. The view is personal and, therefore, various facets of American life and society have been ignored. The photographs were taken during 1955 and 1956; for the most part in large cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and in many other places during my journey across the country. My book, containing these photographs, will be published in Paris by Robert Delpire, 1958.

I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others. Perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.

Born in 1924, Frank had come to the USA from Switzerlandin 1947. His now legendary road trips, which began eight years later, supported by two Guggenheim Foundation grants,were in effect his discovery of the extent of the country, its appearance and its conflicted values. His photographs really were his instantaneous reaction to it all, and to himself. Theyhave been described often as moments between, rather than decisive moments. This is not quite true. Frank was decisive, extraordinarily so, but decisive about his need to express mixed feelings, and doubt. He seemed to have attuned himself to finding a vantage point and pressing his camera’s shutter when the emotions pulled in different directions at the same time. The form of his pictures, with their skewed angles, cut-off framing, grain, blur and wayward exposure, was no accident. There was no other way to describe what he saw, and express what he felt about it.  

In his first few years in the USA, Frank had worked commercially for American magazines, notably Harper’s Bazaar under the guidance of its art director, Alexey Brodovitch. But he sensed what he really needed to do was beyond commercial commission. “I didn’t want to produce what everybody else was producing. I wanted to follow my own intuition and do it my way, and not make any concession—not to make a Life story. . .  Those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end.” He had insisted in his Guggenheim application that his project needed to be “essentially elastic” and would “shape itself as it proceeds.” So, with a proposal to make a “broad, voluminous picture record of things American” and a 1950 Ford, he began.

Many photographers have spoken of what driving for long periods can do to the visual imagination. There are times when it becomes trancelike. There are also times when the landscape rolling by can make the photographer intensely aware so that when they step from the car, they are hypersensitive to the world around them. The switch in tempo, from driving with hands on the wheel to walking with hands on the camera, can be dramatic. Indeed, Frank hadn’t even owned a car until deciding upon the trip. The thrill of mobility was new and led to a heightened feeling for the motion of driving and the edgy stillness of photography:fixed, but like a frame from a movie.

From the start, Frank knew the project would become a book and Robert Delpire, the French publisher, had committed to it. When the shooting was complete, Frank went to Delpire with what was very close to the final selection of photographs and a strong sense of the sequence. In the course of an afternoon, they made a few changes. In many ways, the final book is not ‘of’ the work, it is the work. That is to say, it was in becoming a book that Frank’s project found its form.

He had shot around 28,000 frames in total, which is roughly 780 rolls of 36-exposure film. His book, Les Américains, published in France in 1958, contained 83 images. That is a shooting ratio of 337:1. One frame for every nine or ten rolls of film.  In his introduction to the US edition, The Americans,published in 1959, Jack Kerouac compared Frank’s sensibility to a jazz musician. Indeed, four groundbreaking jazz albums appeared in 1959: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um, and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. Bebop had exploded, with space opening out to take players and listeners down side roads and byways. But underneath was a pulse, or at least the intimation of one. At a formal level, Frank’s photography was a visual equivalent to this music. Confident yet unpredictable, he could weave around his chosen motifs: ragged American flags, lone jukeboxes, glowing television screens, automobiles, and rich people looking as cut-off and lost as the poor. He became alert to the way the background and foreground of daily experience could switch without warning. Out of the humdrum, the unexpected lunged forward. Behind a glowing starlet at a Hollywood premiere it is the common faces in the watching crowd that are in focus. Under this tarpaulin is a car but under that one, perhaps a body. From Frank’s underlying sensibility sprang great fountains of visual invention, existing from moment to moment through wits alone. And between the instants, he was able to evoke the miles and miles, the hours and hours of tedium on the road.

Frank used his camera like a needle flickering on the dial of the everyday, registering the tiniest tremors. It was startlingly supple. None of his pictures are obvious or familiar. He was after something else. Such photography is exhausting to make.It takes a toll on the body and nervous system (years later he recalled, “I was in good shape back then”). Frank had held it together long enough to produce an anti-epic of troubling, bitter, angry and yet melancholy beauty. The debt to his mentor Walker Evans was clear enough, but Frank rejected acool and dispassionate gaze for a vision so wilfully subjective that each image was as much a record of his own state of mind as a report on the world.

While the cultural influence of Evans’s vision has been slow and consistent over the years, the impact of Frank’s work was much more immediate, traumatic even. The initial response to The Americans was, as is now well-known, deep shock. It was not possible to be indifferent. For some, that shock led to outright rejection. Bad photography. Ugly. Uncouth. Unamerican. Communist. For others, it was a shock of recognition. A sudden and unignorable confrontation with what had been hiding in plain sight amid the country’s self-deceptions and advertised myths of happy success. However, in the decades since its publication, the cultural status of The Americans has all but reversed. Today, for a nation slowly reckoning with the 1950s as a period of profound tension and simmering problems, Frank’s work stands as something like the new official account of how things were. The intensifying of the civil rights movement, the growing unease with disposable culture, and the realisation of just how raw and anti-social the country is for most of its citizens… Frank saw it all coming.

Within a few years of its publication, many photographers were trying to work in the manner of The Americans but it was really too complete, too closed, and too tied to Frank’s own specific being. In its unlikely perfection, the project was definitive and beyond imitation. Afterwards, Frank pursued photography much less intensively and committed himself to filmmaking. Around a decade later, it was through collage, montage and the use of text that he established a hybrid form for himself that seemed somewhere between still photography and the cinematic. Sometimes his images from the road found their way into this newer work. It was as if, like everyone else, he was still coming to terms with their power.

It is fitting that the only addition to the set of 83 images was a print Frank made in 1978 to appear at the end of the sequencein the publisher Aperture’s twentieth anniversary reissue of The Americans. The print comprises three consecutive frames from a roll of 35mm film. In the first two frames we see Frank’s young children and wife huddled, loving and vulnerable, in the front passenger seat of their car. It is parked on the roadside of nowhere in particular. In the third frame, taken at a dusty rest stop, there is an oversized sign: TRUCK RATES. Over the bottom of the image Frank has written ‘ANDREA, MARY AND PABLO, TEXAS 1956’. He had rediscovered his whole project in a threepicture haiku.

No doubt The Americans is absolutely of its time in North American history, in art history, and in Robert Frank’s own history. Even so, it continues to resonate profoundly with new audiences and old. And, since there is no time travel, there must be something beyond all the period detail that still feels contemporary, that speaks to us now, in our moment. That ‘something’ is partly to do with The Americans being art of the very highest standard. Such work is never confined to its original moment. It is also to do with the bitter feeling that the USA really has not made the progress it could have, should have. It might even be slipping backwards. Decades on, looking at these photographs can still feel like an instantaneous reaction to ourselves.


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