I Hear America Weeping

John Haber
in New York City

Robert Frank: The Americans

In 1955 a Swiss immigrant set out to discover America. He almost found it all on a streetcar in New Orleans.

Robert Frank chose it for the cover of The Americans, his eighty-three photographs published in this country in 1958. Trolley–New Orleans alone holds a cross-section—male and female, black and white, young and old. Its windows run parallel to the picture plane, like the cells of a contact sheet. Frank in fact winnowed the book from hundreds of rolls of film and twenty-eight thousand shots. It is an emblem of life on the road, a portrait of the artist as an American. Robert Frank's Trolley: New Orleans, from The Americans (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1955)

A patchwork of America

It is also an image of perplexity. The horizontal of that streetcar runs askew. None of the eyes or social strata make contact, with each other with or the photographer. Still others lurk in the fog of its upper windows. Within the book, the image directly follows one of a Fourth of July picnic, dominated by an American flag worn almost to transparency. For blacks on or off the streetcar, so had the American dream.

After fifty years, The Americans still polarizes people. In his introduction, Jack Kerouac rings with praise for its "American-ness." An older, stouter white couple behind me at the Met spoke with equal certainty. This is not America, they told each other. It is joyless and cynical, with barely a hint of the suburban idyll. Robert Frankd saw only what he wanted to see.

Maybe or maybe not. "I dont think that this will be a carefully planned trip," he wrote in his application to the Guggenheim Foundation. You can say that again. Even on the street car, people just want to belong, like a boy on the Fourth whose striped shirt unconsciously echoes the flag. One can see the patched flag as frayed or still holding together. Like the book, it is a literal patchwork of America.

Frank made three separate trips across the continent, long before Matthew Jensen or Emmet Gowin by plane and Google Street View, one leg with his family. This is not Kerouac and Neil Cassidy on the road, although Frank collaborated with Alfred Leslie and the Beats on film, or Joe Pflieger with his high-performance automobile engines. It is compulsive and caring, not impulsive and male. It is also wondering—with the hardest question directed equally at himself and the citizens of his adopted nation. Am I an America yet? Are they?

It is also a moment in American history, much as for what Joel Sternfeld called "American Prospects" years later or for Garry Winogrand, who called himself a student of America. Imagine that one had seen only the documentary realism of the 1930s and the madness of the 1960s. One had seen Walker Evans, with his clear sunlight and etched faces. One had seen Diane Arbus, with her wide eyes and the soft, pasty glow of a horror film. Frank connects them, and all three place the costs of social upheaval in human terms. They are also the terms of the 1950s.

Frank befriended Walker Evans, who helped him snag that Guggenheim grant, and later Danny Lyon. Evans had traveled, too, collecting American postcards. But where the Depression showed abandonment, and the Vietnam era showed confrontation, Frank shows isolation. He gave one of the first copies of The Americans, in 1957, to Evans. What does it say that those copies appeared only in France (and with a different cover)? What does it say that they became perhaps the most recognizable images of America?

The good old USA

Born in 1924 to a family of German Jews, Frank arrived in 1947 and found work at Harper's Bazaar. I cannot imagine a less likely fashion photographer, and he must have felt the same way. Within a year, he was back on the road. All the same, he is settling down. The curators, Sarah Greenough of the National Gallery of Art and Jeff L. Rosenheim of the Met, display his early work starting outside the gallery proper. In perhaps his frankest and most tender scene, Frank photographs his wife nursing.

From 1948 to 1952 he covers four continents, with a pace almost like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Marc Riboud with Magnum Photos, but with his own sense of displacement and the same obsessions. It could be Paris or Peru, but it is the site of rural labor. It could be a doll wrapped in plastic or shoppers eying a shawl, but it is a cult object. Of two long roads, one knows New York's only because it has two lanes. In The Americans another dark highway recedes to infinity. For Kerouac, it holds not anxiety but "immensity," but I am not so sure.

Frank admires Bill Brandt and André Kertész, and he all but inhales Surrealism from his first photographs. Vacuum tubes float in a blank sky, and a man clutches a pig, seen from below. He also finds his subject matter—in cars, modern life, and outsiders uncertain of their own dignity. A street sweeper could come out of social realism, except for his half shut eyes, his movements halfway out the frame, and his dangling cigar. The Americans picks up much the same motifs. Frank identifies with "the common man" without ever quite making contact.

He is determined to give it a shot, though. "I am always impressed," he writes in his grant application, "by the strong admiration for the young and all that is new." True, he is asking for money, but it rings true. America makes an impression that not even he can accept, deny, or explain. He sends Evans a note in his delight at seeing a sign in his travels, "Welcome to the good old USA." There is more to that delight than irony.

He labored over his contact prints—marking, selecting, and changing his mind. He pared down the thousands and thousands of shots to work prints, a full thousand for The Americans alone. The Met has evidence of all this, as well as signed prints of every image in the book, and the process took time and reflection. Frank called an earlier series Black, White, and Things, intending a book that did not appear for over forty years. By training, he sorts his images meticulously by category. By disposition, he lets images overflow their categories and categories overflow their definition.

The Americans does have divisions by subject, like chapters, unlike the America of Lee Friedlander. Yet it unfolds less like an encyclopedia than a film, and he later followed the Rolling Stones on tour, for the ultimate road movie. Pictures comment on one another in sequence, much as for Sally Mann. They connect by fragile echoes and contrasts, like jump cuts. They also connect across many pages, as if the people within them only finally found their voice. They, too, long to know what it means to be an American.

A fight brewing

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly," Frank said, and he makes it clear where his heart lies. He distinguishes the privileged from those who suffer and endure. And he sees privilege as a refusal to see. City fathers at a parade, in profile, turn aside. Dark backs shield a fat face, as part of a club car that ordinary people will never enter. A man on a bench at Yale's commencement could have run out of steam, or the men in black robes could have left him behind.

Frank uses shallow focus to place distance between people. A woman in an elevator seems cut off from the blurry figures through the cabin door. Her beautiful eyes make her that much more lost. The same shift in focus carries one past the blur of a starlet to fans huddled in the middle distance, desperate for a glimpse. However, crispness and light also make them central and alive. As a man leans over to a Las Vegas jukebox, lights flood the circular windows like halos.

The sequence of prints also tells stories, just as on the Fourth of July. They proceed from drivers absorbed in the road to a shrouded car and then simply a shroud, stretched out on the ground. It parallels another car behind it, and it is an accident scene. Even individual prints have the air of what Cindy Sherman would later call Untitled Film Stills. A gaunt man in jeans, leaning against a New York City trash can, could predict Midnight Cowboy. Frank photographs actual movies, too, with at least two drive-ins, before Richard Misrach captured an abandoned one.

Outsiders alone maintain their dignity, but at a cost. Blacks do, dressed for a funeral. So do Jews on their holiest day of the year, but also a day of fasting and repentance. Another politician raises his arms above a carved woman's face. The campaigner chose majesty and public display, but the stone looks close to tears. Like a sad echo of Walt Whitman, she sees America weeping.

Except for the funeral and Yom Kippur, religion here means a preacher or street-corner prophet, not community. Work means an assembly line, a diner, or a forsaken gas station. One sees Cold War fears and complacencies, but I thought again of the decade after. Bob Dylan, who admired the Beats, could be singing about this. "The drunken politicians weep upon the street where mothers weep, and the saviors who are fast asleep, they wait for you."

They would not have to wait long. Frank's focus on race was coming to a head. He attends the 1956 Democratic National Convention, where he sees mostly wheeling and dealing. Outtakes, though, include some of the faces behind the next decade's drive for change, like Robert Kennedy. Even for Frank, though, isolation does not mean peace and quiet. From the looks of things, a bar in New Mexico has a fight brewing.

America in motion

Does all this sound provocative—or just heavy handed and maudlin? That white couple knew where they stood, and so, too, did Kerouac. Frank is not dealing with cetainties. He has rejected the didacticism of social realism. He gives voice to people, not victims, as in the streetcar. He puts questions to America, and it questions back.

He shows no overt suffering. Politics, bars, religion, work, deaths—together they create a fabric of individuals. A very few views do lack people. They include rooftops from a hotel window, a newsstand at the Met Life building, and an empty barber's chair. And yet few landscapes are more thoroughly human. The book, after all, is not America but The Americans.

They are Americans in motion, just as the streetcar is moving past. They love cars, and they love the movies. The Met describes Hollywood here as an elite—Marx's opium of the people. Frank will not condescend to the masses even to that extent. One really can identify the photograph of the streetcar with his art form and his art form with motion pictures. Andy Warhol, Warhol's influence on Pop Art, and sly takes on commercial photography by Alfred Gescheidt were erupting at around the same time, and they were tracking the same upheavals.

One can see the entire book as a movie, with an enigmatic beginning and a happy ending. As it opens, two women watch a parade from separate windows. An American flag hides one woman's face, and Frank's point of view masks the other in darkness. Frank's final scenes include sunbathers or drifters in a public park, and a wedding at City Hall. By the end, too, blacks get more screen time, as well as the book's sole exchange with the photographer. A black couple turns to glare back, and young blacks in a car grin broadly.

All along, the same devices that create a distance between people also create ambiguity and humor. A black nurse holds a round-faced white infant, like a Renaissance prince. A man's tuba obscures his face and makes a mockery of his celebration, but it also gives him a smiley. A photo booth invites people to remember their loved ones for sixty-nine cents, and maybe they will. Kerouac loved the free associations, like the turn from decorative stars to a starlet—as he termed it, "potry."

Frank promised the Guggenheim that his project would be "sociological, historic, and esthetic." He belongs at once to documentary realism and the Beats, but also to postwar formalism, escapism, and the triumph of a very American esthetic. Does that leave him in a strange middle ground, with unanswered questions about art and America? In the very last photograph, Frank steps out onto the road to shoot his wife, in the confined space of the car and at a perilous angle. Is an American journey a gesture of abandonment or of love?

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Looking In: Robert Frank's 'The Americans' " ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 3, 2010. A related review looks at contact sheets for the same work.

 

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