Exhibit of the week
Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans
National Gallery of Art
Through April 26
In 1955, the Swiss photographer Robert Frank set out to crisscross the United States with camera in hand, said Deborah K. Dietsch in The Washington Times. The resulting book, The Americans, was published four years later with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. Frank’s gritty images of small-town parades, “rundown bars,” barbershops, and car crashes captured an “unsentimental picture of America that still resonates today.” To celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary, the National Gallery of Art has mounted an exhibition that sheds as much light on Frank’s artistic processes as it does on the society he photographed. From more than 27,000 frames, Frank chose only 83 images for the final book. He chose well: Most “still look fresh” and surprising, even after half a century.
Frank’s photographs “aren’t examples of technical virtuosity,” said Michael O’Sullivan in The Washington Post. “Some are blurred, with an off-kilter composition.” What distinguishes them is Frank’s keen eye for social detail. Candy Store—New York City, 1955 shows teens gathered around the “glowing and gaudy altar” of a jukebox. Such images reflect Frank’s fascination with popular culture. His pictures are filled with “cars, cemeteries, cowboys, lunch counters, socialites, politicians, and the American flag.” Yet never far from these are the faces of the excluded and the marginal. Trolley—New Orleans, 1955, “probably the book’s most famous photograph,” shows a segregated car in the Deep South. Among the blacks forced to sit in the back, one “looks almost pleadingly back at us.”
The America that Frank captured “was in many ways a very different country” than today’s, said the Baltimore Sun in an editorial. Drive-in movie theaters and elevator operators are now historical artifacts. And the opening of this portrait of a segregated society happened to coincide with the inauguration of the first African-American president. “Yet the themes Frank explored—race, religion, politics, the media, cars, consumer culture, and the changing American landscape—remain at the core of our national identity.” Frank’s photographs were controversial when first published because they exposed “just how far short” the nation fell in striving toward its ideals. It would be easy to look down on the bigoted society we see in these pictures. But 50 years later, Frank’s photographs instead encourage us to acknowledge the shortcomings of our era.