Paris, D.C. Fete Robert Frank’s Gritty ‘Americans’ Photos at 50

An undated handout photo, provided to the media on Friday, Feb. 20, 2009, shows a photograph, entitled ''Paris'' by American photographer Robert Frank

Robert Frank was denounced as sneakily subversive and technically inept when his photography book “The Americans” came out in 1959.

His volume became one of the most popular coffee-table books published in the U.S.: Frank, now 84, saw his influence grow and his talent recognized.

Today, two exhibitions — one at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, and the other at the Jeu de Paume in Paris — celebrate the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication.

Swiss-born Frank came to New York in 1947 and was hired by Harper’s Bazaar as fashion photographer. Although the job was well paid, he soon got bored with it and went back to Europe.

It was only in 1955 that he found his niche in the New World. Supported by Edward Steichen and Walker Evans, he won a Guggenheim fellowship — the first awarded to a European photographer — that allowed him to do the non-commercial work he aspired to.

Between April 1955 and June 1956, he crossed the U.S. with his wife and his two children in tow, taking about 28,000 pictures with a Leica. The policeman in Arkansas, who arrested the snooping foreigner, correctly suspected that the result would not be an advertising brochure for the American way of life.

The 83 snapshots that were published — first in France, then in the U.S. — portrayed a dreary country, dominated by flags, cars, gas stations, TV sets, jukeboxes and segregated buses, full of lonely, sullen, barely distinguishable individuals.

Grainy Textures

It didn’t help that Frank’s style, favoring seemingly amateurish angles and grainy textures, defied the traditional aesthetic canon.

The U.S. edition was published by Grove Press which, at about the same time, caused a stir by acquainting Americans with Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” and the first unexpurgated edition of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

This and a foreword by Jack Kerouac, the Beat novelist, did much to attract attention to the outsider’s heretical view, which subsequently inspired a generation of documentary and street photographers.

The first edition of “The Americans” — a collector’s item that now fetches prices up to $4,000 — has been reprinted many times. On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Steidl Publishers in Gottingen, Germany, has brought out a new edition, redesigned by the photographer.

Different Shows

The show at the National Gallery emphasizes, according to its Web site, “the book’s roots in Frank’s earlier work and its construction.” Frank’s pictures taken in Paris between 1949 and 1952 — some of which have never been seen in public before –are added to the Jeu de Paume exhibition.

His approach is more or less the same, yet, Paris being Paris, the casual street scenes are a far cry from the depressing image of “The Americans.” They resemble Eugene Atget’s deceptively simple, mysteriously poetic Paris views.

Since 1959, Frank has made more than 25 movies and videos. Two of them are on view in Paris, though not his juicier ones — such as his 1972 documentary on the sex and drug fueled U.S. tour of the Rolling Stones.

The show at the Jeu de Paume runs through March 22 and the one at Washington’s National Gallery of Art through April 26, after which it will travel to San Francisco (May 17 to Aug. 23) and New York (Sept. 20 to Dec. 27).

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Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 9:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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